Who knew a sea urchin could be food? Surprisingly it is! And a very special one at that.
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Have you ever heard of Uni? A Sea urchin is commonly called Uni in Japanese cuisine. To be specific, it’s the urchin’s gonads which are called Uni. Like those crab roe’s, uni is used in all sort of meals, whether seafood or not. It is added to uni sushi, sandwiches, and even used in pasta.
Uni taste is not fishy at all. Rather it has a distinct oceanic flavor which is very rich. It has a creamy texture which can be enjoyed be in lots of meals. To be honest, I first time I heard about eating a sea urchin for a meal, I found it too gross of an idea.
Maybe it was because of a particular image of sea urchin that I had in my mind. But when I started to learn more about this seafood, I was convinced to try it. After a single plate of nicely cooked uni in sushi, I was more than caught by the taste of it.
However, I still know how many people would shy away from even reading such a dish on the menu. If you are one of them then don’t feel bad, it happens to a lot of people. This is the reason I am writing today. To give you some knowledge on what uni is, and bring you closer to the epic taste and texture of the sea urchin.
What is a Sea Urchin?
Before getting into this whole debate of uni being delicious or gross, lets learn about the sea urchin itself first. They are among the most pricey delicacies in the world. This sea creature lives near the ocean bad, and are one of the most important players in the underwater ecosystem. And as you may know, this animal is a fleshy globular mass that is covered with spines.
You won’t be eating those spines with your urchin. It is the internal flesh of the urchin we are after, which is a rich source of proteins, calories and a number of minerals and vitamins. There are many living varieties of sea urchins, and some of them are even been explored yet. Only some are edible, and uni is obtained from those species.
Uni is the edible portion of the sea urchin, and it is found inside the spiny skin. To get this uni, you need to slightly carve the skin and tear it apart until a yellowish mustard appears. That is the uni you can use for cooking.
To find sea urchin look for rocks, as they are always attached to some surface whether sea rocks, seaweeds or other plants. Dive into the deeper parts of the ocean, and there will be a lot of sea urchins. There are about 700 different species in the world, yet you cannot eat them all. Look for the two Mediterranean species, either Paracentrotus or Arabicia, which are popular to eat.
Sea urchins not attached to any surface are not good for eating. Always keep that in mind. There has to be some seaweed or rocks attached to the animal. Dark, or sloppy-looking sea urchins are also not good for you. They have to be some shade of either red, purple or green.
Debunking Myths About Sea Urchin
I have heard many people calling sea urchins either dangerous or poisonous. I have eaten the animal, and I’m still here! All is fine. The fact is, edible sea urchin is harmless, and except for the spiny outer skin their flesh is free from any poison or chemical. But, again, your choice of the right sea urchins are important here.
Another fact to keep in mind is that the sea urchins shell is not edible with or without the spines. In fact, be careful in general if you are handling an urchin. They are sometimes very sharp and pointy.
There are special sea urchin opening tools which allow easy handling of the animal, and with which you can easily remove the skin.
Once you slit open the sea urchin, not everything inside is edible. To remove those inedible parts, the guts, etc., shake the sea urchin in some water. These parts will be washed away leaving behind a star-shaped mass attached to the underside of the skin.
Remove this orangish part from the skin and prepare it for cooking. This flesh is very soft, even softer than the oyster, so it cannot bear high-temperature cooking, and it does not need too much chewing.
Eating sea urchins raw is also an option. The urchin gonads are sometimes even sold with their skins removed. For me, the first option seems better, as you can better ensure fresh urchins in this way.
But in case you lack time or skin removing tools, then try readily cleaned and prepared sea urchin meat.
In traditional Japanese recipes, there is not much cutting or slicing of the uni, as it is quite delicate. You will see what I mean by the end of this article when I share some top-notch sea urchin recipes.
Many people are aware of sea urchin health benefits but do not know much about the cooking of this weird seafood.
Types of Edible Sea Urchin
Let’s talk about the varieties of edible sea urchins and their availability on the market. There are several types of edible uni, but I will be sharing only the most popular ones. They all differ from one another in shape, size and even color. The gonads might taste slightly different based on the environment they live in.
- Hokkaido, Japan: Most of the sea urchins imported from Japan are from Hokkaido, and this species of sea urchin is associated with this name. It is found in the northernmost part of the country. Many national and international chefs claim this variety of sea urchin is the richest in terms of taste and texture.
It has a very elegant sweetness which pairs well with Japanese cuisine. Sea urchins live on kelp, so the region provides a good habitat for this variety of sea urchin. From the outside, these sea urchins have a shiny black color with a slight touch of purple.
On the inside, there are prominent orangish gonads. Freshly removed gonads are bright in color, but after losing their water the color turns pale. They are not cooked but instead added raw to dishes.
- Santa Barbara, California: Sea urchins from Santa Barbara are a major attraction for people living in the area. They are far better in quality than those from Hokkaido. The uni found in this region are much large in size, and the flesh is large and prominent. The large size is mainly because of the sulfur found in the sea around Santa Barbara.
The uni doesn’t contain sulfur to a dangerous extent. Uni from there is so soft that it literally melts in your mouth.
These sea urchins are extra sweet, and they differ from the rest of the varieties because of the different seaweed variety available in those waters. Change of diet means a change in taste of the uni. Another important feature which sets these sea urchins apart from the others is their creamy and thick texture.
- United States: A number of sushi places on the East coast use sea urchins from Maine. It is the most proximate area from those restaurants. The specialty of sea urchin from this area is that they are much more firm than others. These urchins can give you a very strong aroma when added to a meal.
It takes a period of 10 years for a young urchin to become this most delicious delicacy. The color of Maine uni is bright yellow in appearance. It looks much brighter than Santa Barbara’s uni. To differentiate their exterior from the rest, their smaller spines are enough to tell you the difference. Santa Barbara’s sea urchins have much longer spines.
- South America: Then comes the fourth variety of the edible sea urchin, eaten in most parts of the world. These are available in the South American region. Most commonly these sea urchins are sourced from Chile. These sea urchins are not on par with other varieties in terms of taste and texture. These are not even used or served in high-scale restaurants as they are not suitable for sushi.
Still, they are available in a number of other local restaurants, served directly or as a food topping. According to the experts, the waters around Chile have aluminum in amounts which can affect the quality of the sea urchin found there.
Maybe without this aluminum, this sea urchin would turn out a lot tastier. The uni from this urchin has the brightest color of all, a bright somewhat lemony yellow.
What’s With the Different Grades of Uni?
I always encountered the phrase, ‘which grade of uni are you looking for’ which made me wonder how many grades there are what the standard criteria are to set the grades.
Based on freshness, color, and texture, Uni are categorized into different grades. There are a number of other factors that decide the quality of the Uni; these may include harvest time, diet and gender.
The highest grade uni has a bright orange or golden color. Such types of uni have a firm texture and sweetest flavor. Lesser grade uni has mild color and is less sweet in taste. such uni is not good for nice quality dishes like sushi, sea urchin sashimi, or sea urchin soup.
in Japan, irrespective of these grades, uni is found in four different forms. Fresh uni is available as nama uni, the frozen one comes with the name reito uni, the steamed variety is labeled as ‘Mushi uni,’ and the grilled is available as ‘yaki uni.’
At this time uni is also sold in a paste form, which is suitable for sauces and toppings or flavoring of other recipes. To enjoy high-grade uni, fall to winter is the best time period. December is the best month to enjoy this delicacy. In summers, avoid having uni for a meal.
How Can You Use Sea Urchins?
While cooking uni, make sure the animal is fresh. You can check the freshness by the smell of the sea urchin. Another indicator is the firmness of the animal, and if you can even witness a slight movement in the spines the animal is fresh.
To prepare sea urchins for cooking, make sure that you have a sharp pair of kitchen scissors or any sharp carving tool. The animal has to be cut in half around the middle. First, puncture the skin at one point and start carving it around in a small circle around the shell. But make sure that the shell is intact from other areas. This can ensure easier handling of the sea urchin.
Once it is opened, drain all the dark liquid from the insides and scoop out the brown-black part from the shell. After removing all such parts, you will see how symmetrically designed this animal is.
It has five folds of yellow oranges gonads, extending against the inner wall of the shell. All these five parts are equal in size and shape. Together they look like a starfish fixed inside of a shell. Rinse the shell well before removing the gonads.
To gently scoop out the gonads, use a spoon and place it near one edge of the shell and take out the gonads with the spoon. Rinse them gently either in freshwater or salt water. If you are not serving them directly, then preserve them in an ice bath or other chilled place. Try to serve them immediately after the removal for best taste, texture, and aroma.
What to Cook With Sea Urchin?
It is an important question to decide which types of flavors go best with the uni. Like crab roe’s, it has this salty ocean flavor.
Sea urchin is also used as toppings on toasts and biscuits. In Japanese cuisine, the sea urchin is used for plain nigiri sushi and plain noodles.
Tagliatelle makes excellent use of fresh sea urchin in Italy. This dish nicely complements the sea urchins’ flavors. For an energy boosting breakfast, scrambled eggs can be used with some sea urchin plus caviar. Adjust the flavors with some sea salt to harness all the right flavors.
You can freely experiment with sea urchins and try them with your own idea of personal taste, but it is always best to serve them in the purest form and enjoy the uni straight from the shell. In some regions, the uni is often sautéed in some cooking liquor like the Greek Ouzo or the Japanese sake. These liquids can infuse a juicy and filling taste into the uni.
Let me share one delicious recipe with sea urchin.
Since my family loves pasta, I use this basic recipe and keep on changing the type and form of pasta to create new varieties. Linguine pasta with sea urchin is what I usually cook for my family.
The steps are simple. I am sharing a general idea about this dish. You can tinker with your own proportions as per your taste. First, you need to boil the linguine pasta in hot water. After draining this pasta, saute with salt, pepper, paprika, lemon juice, and parsley.
Some marinara sauce can also be used to enhance the flavors. Or else the basic spices are perfect. After sautéing and tossing the paste together well, divide it into the serving bowls. Finally, remove the uni from their shells and slice them into bite-sized pieces. Top each bowl with 3 to 4 pieces. Serve.
You can replace the linguine with spaghetti or other forms of pasta. I add chunks of uni over fried rice, plain rice, curries, soups and for stuffing sandwiches. How you serve this seafood depends completely on you.
Sea Urchin Benefits – Are They That Good?
Sea urchin nutritional value rightly indicates how good of a seafood it is. This is the major reason why I first opted for uni. Even those who can not bear the idea of eating a spiny skinned animal as dinner will be fascinated with the amazing health benefits this sea animal can offer. Seafood is always healthy compared to any terrestrial meat.
It was the Japanese who discovered this super healthy meal from the depths of the oceans and it brought to our plates. Despite its high price, this delicacy is still in high demand due to its nutritional importance.
Low in Calories
People on special diets always look for a filling meal that can nevertheless reduce their caloric intake. Voila! Sea urchin is just the right choice for them. A sea urchin is extremely low in calories. It only provides 34 calories per ounce.
This value is the lowest when compared to other seafood like the tuna, salmon or mackerel. Anyone intending to lose weight can count on the sea urchin. Replace your high caloric sushi with uni sushi. Eating this seafood can help you lose about 1 to 2 lbs. of weight per week.
Very Low in Fat
Besides its low caloric content, the sea urchin is also quite low in fats. It can provides only 1.1 grams of fat per ounce. The animal is rich and dense, and fat only constitutes nine grams of its total. The few grams of fats present in the sea urchin are all unsaturated fats as they are sourced from the under-water plants that the sea urchin feeds on.
This, in turn, is again beneficial for those individuals who want to lose weight or those who are going through cardiovascular difficulties.
Minimal Carbohydrate Content
All of the recent research is claiming lower carbohydrate intake as healthy. Sea urchin is also beneficial in this regard. It becomes more relevant for people following a special dietary routine. The sea urchin has the lowest carb value when compared to other seafood.
That is why low carb sushi is made by adding fresh sea urchin. A low carb diet is always good to lose weight, reduce cardiovascular risks and maintain blood sugar levels.
Rich in Protein
Sea urchin meat is so rich in protein that this macronutrient constitutes the greatest share of nutrients among them all. A single ounce of sea urchin can give you 3.2 grams of protein on average. This is even greater than the protein provided by one egg. The health benefits of clean protein can never be underestimated. It is great to build and repair muscles.
No other protein source can provide such a dense pack of proteins. Furthermore, the animal is eaten directly instead of cooking, so no nutrients are lost in the process. That is why health experts also recommend eating raw sea urchin, straight from the shell.
Well, there is no denying the fact that the sea urchin is a ball of surprises. A few years back I only thought of its shells as used for decoration. But now it has become one of my favorite seafoods. Owing to its amazing taste and nutritional value, the sea urchin is worthy of adding to every exotic recipe, whether Japanese or Chinese or others.
It is an amazing low caloric food you can enjoy with any meal. However, it may cost you some extra bucks. But the whole experience of trying delicious uni will totally pay off. It does not need cooking or flavoring. The naturally sweet and creamy flavors of the sea urchin are enough to make any dish super luscious.
So, if you didn’t know what uni is, now you know! And I bet you’ll want to try delicious uni Japanese food. Uni-versal praise for this superfood!