We are quite fond of sea urchins here at Kitchen Community. These strange-looking, spike-covered, alien-like animals are mother oceans’ gift to seafood lovers, but most people don’t even know about the hidden gem that is the humble sea urchin, or uni, as it is often called.
If you are aware of this intriguing-looking prickly ball of sea-salty goodness, you are one of a small minority in America. If you have no idea what a sea urchin actually is, then welcome, all you sea urchin newbies! You are about to learn about something really quite unique, tasty, and wonderfully nutritious.
Uni is the Japanese word for sea urchin roe, which is the reproductive organ of the sea urchin. It is a delicacy in many parts of the world, especially in Japan and other parts of Asia. Uni has a rich, buttery, and slightly sweet flavor, and is often served raw as sushi or sashimi, or used as a garnish or ingredient in other dishes. Uni is high in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and other nutrients, making it a healthy food choice. However, due to its high price and limited availability, uni is considered a luxury food item.
But first, what is uni (pronounced ‘oo nee’) or fresh sea urchin, exactly?
The Ugly Duckling of Seafood
The first thing you should know is that mother nature gifted the animal with guilt-edge terrible looks, but did so for a reason – the same reason why this odd-looking spherical sea animal has spikes protruding from its outer flesh – to ward off prey.
You might notice we described the sea urchin as an animal. Despite hailing from the ocean’s shallow depths, where it blindly scrambles around coral and rocks, the sea urchin is indeed an animal and not a fish.
The spikes are in place for defensive reasons, obviously. But we suspect mother nature also whispered in the ear of evolution, asking to ‘make it as ugly as possible for humans.’ This thing is no juicy-looking sirloin, folks. This thing looks ugly.
But that doesn’t matter. In the same way that the ugly duckling should not be judged by its looks, neither should the sea urchin because it tastes amazing. It also offers an abundance of nutritional value, but strangely it somehow feels nutritious when you eat it.
You know what we mean by that, hopefully. The satisfying feeling from drinking a huge glass of kale juice or something similar. You get an immediate sense, right down to the cellular level, that something pretty healthy is happening right at that moment. It’s almost like your body shouts, “Finally! Something good!”.
Sea urchins have that exact same effect. It is not only healthy, but it feels healthy. Almost like omega-3 acids, zinc, fiber, and a host of other healthy minerals are immediately absorbed, much to the gratitude of your cells, and your waistline. That’s right, edible sea urchins are low-calorie, too.
Look, Texture, and Flavor?
Sea urchin, or uni, is the edible part of the purple sea urchin, which is obtained by cutting open the sea urchin’s shell to reveal the reproductive sex organs inside, which resemble tongues, in a funny way. Please suspend any ‘yuk’ thoughts you might have because the sea urchin is pretty much one whole reproduction organ, entirely different from, uh, the sexual organs of humans.
Sea urchins have prickly sharp spines and could be described as akin to a hedgehog. That’s probably not an ideal image to have in your mind, because hedgehogs are cute, after all, and certainly not something you would like to eat. But the comparison is a fair one, we think.
Sea urchins are most definitely not in the cute category, however, and are completely brainless. Not in the ‘this sea urchin is so dim-witted’ sense but in the literal brainless sense. So, please dispel any correlation you now have between a cute little button-nosed hedgehog and the sea urchin. They are similar in their spikey format and nothing else, you might be relieved to know.
The creamy texture would be described as pretty unique, at least for something out of the sea. Also called sea urchin roe, uni has a distinctive yellow or sometimes pinkish-red color, with a buttery, creamy consistency, and custard-like consistency. Uni is extremely melted in the mouth; it almost dissolves on your tongue, surprising your unsuspecting taste buds with a distinct flavor of the sea.
This is a quite unique taste, dissimilar to other seafood in most ways, and hard to articulate, if we are being honest.
So how does uni, or sea urchin, actually taste? Well, sea urchin is something of an acquired taste to many people. Yes, it is delicious, but the sea urchin taste is very much acquired and does take a dish or two before convincing your taste buds that actually, this is something delicious after all.
In short, uni tastes great but takes just a little getting used to.
Again, uni takes some getting used to, mostly owing to its odd looks and unique flavor, but it has many health benefits, and in some corners of the world, not only is the sea urchin a healthy delicacy but is also an aphrodisiac.
So, what makes this oceanic hedgehog so popular? Let’s investigate. That’s the last time we will use the hedgehog analogy, we promise.
The relatively small amount of edible meat inside a live sea urchin is particularly fragile, almost sensitive, and as such, they are a bit awkward to harvest. They are also not the easiest things in the world to catch. You try scuba diving down to a remote coral reef, grasping around for a dashing little ball of prickly pain. It’s no cakewalk.
This combination of difficulty in being hand-harvested and awkward meat preparation has placed sea urchins in the upper to high price range, and while they are affordable for most, they are definitely not in the ‘everyday meal’ category. Sea urchins are something of a mild splurge, shall we say.
The price of fresh uni, when consumed within 24 hours of being caught, is actually quite eyebrow-raising because the flavor of uni is especially delicious when consumed fresh. Lower-cost sea urchins are usually outside of this 24-hour period.
How Is Uni Served?
Sea urchin is primarily eaten as uni sushi, mostly in Japan, as one of the few remaining delicacies that are more widely available. A minor sea urchin roe industry developed in North America in the 1980s in response to the overfishing of Japanese waters, and today practically all of the uni consumed in the United States comes from the west coast, where it is known as Santa Barbara Uni.
On that note, we should mention that Santa Barbara Uni has evolved over the years into something special, having earned a worldwide reputation for being really quite delicious, serving uni of the highest grade. Go, Santa Barbara, go!
Uni is still regarded as an aphrodisiac in its native Japan, where it has long been regarded as a delicacy. The flavor, which is commonly described as brackish (almost brine-like), varies depending on the place where it was taken, how fresh it was, and even the gender of the animal.
Uni can be used in pasta sauce for a lovely sea urchin pasta dish, spread out as a uni butter, added to rice, or any number of other ways, in addition to being carefully presented as uni sushi rice in its native Japan. In America, pasta is the preferred method of eating.
Uni sashimi is another popular serving option in Japanese cuisine, always presented with soy sauce. In the same way that ketchup is essential to a good burger, soy sauce is essential for enhancing sea urchins’ flavor profile.
Unlike Santa Barbara uni, Japanese uni also has a few different variations in flavor depending on region and preparation. Nigiri sushi is among the more popular dishes in a good sushi restaurant. Other popular uni styles in Japan include Hokkaido uni, yaki uni, bafun uni, Mushi uni, shio uni, and Nama uni, usually in raw uni style.
There are a ton of uni recipes online, but we would suggest the best way to eat uni, at least for the first time, is in a restaurant. That goes against all of our values at Kitchen Community as we embrace cooking even the most exotic recipes. We love our readers to give new recipes a try.
Fresh uni is hard to source, though, and we advise against buying frozen. Leaving it to the professionals would be our advice, at least until you acquire a taste for it.
Start with uni pasta, just to play it safe and hopefully develop a uni taste. If you enjoy the pasta version, move on to an Asian rice bowl version, or any rice-topped dish, before giving uni sushi a try.
Either way, you will love it, eventually. Most people do. It just takes a dish or two to fully appreciate!
What Is Uni + Recipe
- 8 oz. spaghetti or linguine
- 2-3 cloves garlic minced
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup white wine
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 2-3 oz. uni cleaned and chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Chopped parsley for garnish optional
- Cook the pasta according to package instructions until al dente. Drain and set aside.
- In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the minced garlic and sauté for about 1-2 minutes, or until fragrant.
- Add the white wine to the skillet and let it simmer for about 2-3 minutes, or until it has reduced by half.
- Add the heavy cream and Parmesan cheese to the skillet and stir until the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth.
- Add the chopped uni to the skillet and stir gently until it is warmed through.
- Add the cooked pasta to the skillet and toss until it is coated evenly with the sauce.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve hot, garnished with chopped parsley if desired.