In all the Japanese restaurants that I’ve frequented in the past five years, I have always asked if they have sea urchin (uni). Low grade pieces can be as salty and briny as one may expect, with a strong taste not befitting for most people to eat; and the uni one finds in grocery stores will most likely have been processed–further altering its taste.
They aren’t worth touching unless one is desperate. There are a few restaurants that may order these processed packs, but if one sees the real deal, spikes and all, the pieces of roe coming from off the sea is far better than what a processing factory may do.
Really fresh sea urchin should have no bitter after-taste. It’s like having the ocean wash in and out of your mouth, with a diluted taste of kelp (which is essentially what these urchins eat) muted out. Also, the roe should also be bright gold in colour. It can be firm, but often it’s soft and is very delicate when bitten upon. Uni is best eaten in one go than in a bite or two when it is made into a sushi style wrap. That is, they are put on a small bed of rice and the seaweed wrapped around it. Depending on the restaurant, it may even be garnished.
When diners go in to ask for Uni, one should find out when the produce was received and if it is local. I appreciate supporting local harvesters, and the quicker it is delivered to the dinner table the better it will taste. This fact is especially important for fans of raw seafood. The longer it sits, even if refrigerated, the odder the taste will be. No seafood should sit for longer than two days.
In terms of presentation, and how it can be made, I have sampled it cooked and raw. While I lean more towards raw, with two slices of tiny cucumbers to help complement the texture, tempura style can’t be beat. When cooked, the uni is firmer, almost like biting into supple crawfish meat. And when it is dressed with either Japanese mayo or even sliced kelp fresh from the sea, there is no holding back. The latter idea was mine, and when I suggested to my friend and chef, Brydon Parker, to try it out, I couldn’t stop myself and found a new taste sensation that is very enjoyable. The combination of crispiness from the kelp to the creaminess of the urchin made for a wonderful delight on my tastebuds.
When searching for quality sea urchin to try, don’t be afraid. Honestly, it can’t bite back once its roe is plucked out of this creature. But be wary of cost to size ratio. A thick piece is worth its weight in gold and is very tasty, but be prepared to pay at least $3.50 for it. Anything smaller, if valued at $2.50 in a restaurant, just doesn’t serve this egg substance justice.
There is the option of diving for it, and that’s no easy venture. The sea urchin itself comes in a variety of sizes and location does matter for the roe that we, as humans, like to eat. The ocean currents and the mineral content that is sweeping in from the sea can easily affect how the roe will taste. Just like seaweed, not all urchins are created equally and it is best to avoid trying any that’s been collected near commercial industry.
Ed, you're a man after my own heart.Thanks for this wonderful post. I LOVE uni and seek it out wherever I go. The best I've had so far is at Social House in Las Vegas. Second to that is the sea urchin I ate in the Arctic where we harvested it ourselves. Yep, there we were in Nunavut, -30C March 2011, scooping sea urchin out of an inlet fed from Hudson Bay. You can read more about our adventure here: http://weirdwildandwonderful.blogspot.com/2011/03/sanikiluaq-sea-urchin-expedition.html