I love sea urchin. The Japanese refer to these spiky colorful sea creatures as uni. When the round echinoderms with long, purple spikes are cut open, they reveal coral-colored lobes (sometimes called tongues) of roe inside. Among places like the coastal rocks and reefs of Japan, New Zealand, Canada, Alaska and Maine, edible sea urchins also live in the coastal kelp beds of Santa Barbara, California. I often visit dockside seafood markets along the coast of California searching for this expensive delicacy.
I was richly rewarded at the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market in San Diego one recent Saturday. This weekly, open-air market run by fishermen carries unusual specimens like whelk snails, along with seasonal catches of spot prawns, box crabs, whole bigeye and yellowfin tuna, black cod and more. The market opens at 8 a.m., but the line begins forming at 6 a.m. with eager shoppers wanting first-pick of the day’s catch.
Most sea urchin is eaten by the Japanese as sushi or sashimi, with soy sauce and wasabi, but other cultures have developed their own ways to enjoy this briny, soft treat that tastes of the ocean. In Chilean cuisine where it is called erizo, sea urchin is served raw with lemon, onions, and olive oil. In Western Africa and the Caribbean, they eat it fried. The French mash it into a Hollandaise sauce designed to be served over fish. The Italians call it ricci and eat it in a rich pasta sauce made with cream and chilies.
To prepare fresh sea urchin, place a bowl of ice water in the sink. Turn the urchin upside down over the bowl of water and follow these steps:
Step 1: Use kitchen shears to cut the sea urchin open around the mouth.
Step 2: Pull the urchin open and turn out the liquid inside.
Step 3: Dip the urchin in the ice water to help keep the roe intact.
Step 4: Use a small spoon to remove the five pieces of coral-colored roe that look like tongues. Rinse off any particles.
Step 5: Place the roe on paper towels to dry.
If you can’t make it to a fresh seafood market, you can buy sea urchin roe online from Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx, NY. Uni is, admittedly, an acquired taste. You might want to try it in a restaurant before committing to buying a batch of it.
Here is my fusion version of an Italian/Mexican sea urchin pasta dish that’s easy to make and very satisfying.
Italian-Mexican Sea Urchin Pasta
This rich sauce has roots in Italian cuisine, but I gave it a twist by using Mexican crema. It has a nice taste that pairs well with the uni. You can always use crème fraîche or even heavy cream instead. If sea urchin is too strong a taste for you, substitute smoked mussels or clams.
Health Benefits: Sea urchin roe contains omega-3 fatty acids which support heart and brain health, protein for building muscle, and zinc, a mineral which supports the immune system and helps wounds heal.
8 to 10 tongues of fresh sea urchin roe
1/3 cup Mexican-style crema
10 ounces spaghetti or angel hair pasta
1 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 small shallot, finely minced
1 tsp. dried red chili flakes (or Thai red chili paste)
1/2 cup dry sake (or dry white wine, such as Pinot Grigio)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Small handful finely minced fresh chives or parsley for garnish
1. Set aside 4 tongues of sea urchin roe to use as garnish. Combine remaining sea urchin and crema using a blender or food processor. Blend until completely smooth. Set aside.
2. Cook pasta until al dente according to package directions.
3. Meanwhile, cook the garlic and shallots in olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly, until softened but not browned, about 2 minutes.
4. Add chili flakes or paste and stir until combined. Add sake or wine and cook until liquid is reduced down to less than 2Tbs., about 1 minute. Remove pan from heat and set aside until pasta is cooked.
4. When pasta is cooked, use tongs to transfer the noodles directly from the boiling water to the pan with the garlic/oil mixture. Scrape the uni purée into the pan and toss with the pasta and garlic until all of the pasta is coated. Add a few ounces of starchy pasta-cooking water, if necessary, to get a smooth, creamy sauce. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.
5. Divide pasta between serving bowls, drizzle each portion with more extra-virgin olive oil, garnish each with a whole sea urchin tongue, sprinkle with minced chives or parsley, and serve.