“What does it taste like? I’m not sure because I’ve never had anything like it. All I know is that it tastes alive, something alive at the undragged bottom of the sea; it tastes the way flesh would taste if flesh were a mineral….That night I threw up……But a week later I’m better, and I go back by myself. The woman is there and so are the sea urchins, glistening in the hot sun. ‘I know what you want,’ she says. I sit, my mouth slick with anticipation and revulsion, not yet knowing why.”
-Chang-Rae Lee, The New Yorker
I recently saw the film ‘100 Steps’. It’s about an Indian family who sets up a restaurant on the side of the road facing an elegant establishment deep in the French countryside.
Our hero, Hassan, is the eldest son of the family and the film opens with his mother taking him to a food market in Mumbai. We know he is marked out for great culinary things when he’s offered an urchin and he swoons appreciatively, recognising their earth-moving wonder. I won’t say how the film ends except that it involves Hassan savouring urchins again, and once more appreciating that they are the answer to Life, The Universe and Everything.
So it was that, dining out the other night, and finding sea urchins on the menu, I decided to try them for myself. ‘Crostini di rizzi’ was what was on offer, sea urchins on toasted French bread. They duly arrived, spread thinly and gently, on the thickly-sliced baguette, rusty gelatinous globules, tasting pleasantly of the sea, but not of life itself.
I was eating the urchins on the beach (literally) of the bay where they’d been growing so they were ultra fresh. My taste buds were underwhelmed, and my grey cells began to wonder if part of their magic isn’t connected with the food itself. The only edible part of the animal (they aren’t plants as many people think) are the sex organs – its gonads. They were, we have it on good authority, served at the marriage of Heracles and Hebe, goddess of youth. Could it be, asked my inner cynic, that sea urchins are admired more as a kind of edible wrinkle-effacing moisturiser – a culinary triumph of hope over experience?
Or, of course, that they offer youthful potency. As Nick Fisher comments in The River Cottage Fish Book:
“[Sea urchins] are one of the few foods whose alleged effect on body and spirit is one we’d vouch for. Hugh once ate two dozen and recalls feeling distinctly….uplifted. Aphrodisiac might be pushing it, but they’re definitely a tonic.”
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fish, The River Cottage Fish Book
What makes sea urchins taste so sublime?
My problem may have been simply not eating enough! Apparently (further research required) the edible part of the sea urchin contains the chemical Anandamide (‘ananda’ being the Sanskrit word for joy, bliss, delight … everything exhibited by Hassan in the film in fact). According to this blog a similar chemical is responsible for the euphoria-producing effect of cannabis.
When are they in season and where to find the best
Certainly they’re prized in many countries, particularly Japan (where they are served as a kind of sushi known as ‘uni’). Michel Roux Jr says his dream destination is Hokkaido. He plans to go in mid-June, the start of the sea urchin season in Japan. He says the best are found around the town of Shakotan which is in a beautiful area of stunning capes, reefs and ridges surrounded by intense blue seas.
Here in Italy, in addition to being served, fresh from the shell, on bread, they are often stirred, again fresh, into a simple pasta. Their taste is delicate, so whatever they are served on or with should not detract from the main event. Avoid recipes involving chilli – a little lemon zest and sea salt is really all the seasoning needed, if that. In Italy the season for sea urchins is mid November to the end of April. Between April 30 and June 30 the hunting of sea urchins is strictly regulated.
Ways of eating sea urchins
- avoid food partners which overwhelm – sea urchins’ taste is delicate – scrambled eggs do well in this respect
- chef Pascal Aussignac, of London’s Club Gascon, whips them into a foam which he pours over carpaccio of duck
- throughout Italy they are served either on tagliatelle (again, a neutral backdrop)
- or on crostini – perhaps with a little lemon or white wine
- they are good straight from the shell (use the technique in the clip below)
- on top of nigiri sushi
- Specialist Stephanie Mutz’s favourite way (quoted in Cherry Bombe, Issue 7) is “to eat them directly scooped out of the shell with some sea salt…. believe it or not if you sprinkle salt on your uni it tastes sweeter. But I also like to crack open an urchin, clean it, crack an egg inside, and steam it until the egg is softly poached. Maybe add rice. Creamy amazingness”. For more recipes go to Stephanie’s website.
What to drink with sea urchins
Did you know? Sea urchins were once known as ‘sea hedgehogs’ – urchin being an old word for hedgehog.
Follow this link for some gorgeous National Geographic photographs of sea urchins.
How to prepare sea urchins
Below is a clip showing how to prepare and eat a large urchin (in Europe they are mostly much smaller).