Surely, you’ve heard of sea urchins. Those little round spiny things that ever so slowly make their way across the ocean floor. But did you know they’re considered a delicacy in many parts of the world?
It may be an acquired taste, but the sea’s hedgehog is more than it seems. Like most seafood, it has numerous health benefits and is packed to the brim with vitamins and nutrients. And if you’ve never heard of this until now, you’re probably wondering what these little guys taste like.
This dish has quite a unique flavor. It’s briny and packed with umami, with a surprisingly tender and almost buttery texture.
Read on to learn more about this seafood delicacy.
What is uni?
Well, in short, uni are sea urchins.
They can be found all over the world in every ocean, but they prove to be quite difficult to harvest. They require intense labor to harvest and clean, so they typically come at quite a hefty price tag.
These bad boys are harvested by hand by professional divers. In some parts of Korea, women exclusively have this job. They train for several years to dive in cold waters and do lengthy free-dives – meaning they don’t use any diving equipment.
The divers don a mask, grab a knife, and dive as deep as 50 feet into the freezing cold ocean waters to gather up sea urchins, abalone, seaweed, and conch.
They’re almost always sold fresh, and because of this, it’s pretty hard to find them outside of a sushi restaurant or an Asian food market.
They’re very popular in Japan, however, the oceans around this country have since become overfished. Now, any uni you find in the United States is very likely harvested off the coast of California.
What is the flavor profile of uni?
There’s actually a wide variety of flavors available when it comes to uni. It has quite a strong smell of the salty ocean, with a thick and buttery texture.
The taste can range from briny to metallic and even slightly sweet depending on where it was harvested, the freshness, and even the sex of the sea urchin. It can be quite a polarizing dish, as you’ll hear opinions ranging from enthusiastic admiration or outright disgust.
Uni is typically served draped over top of sushi, it can also be made into sauces and spreads with butter, on rice, or even as the noodles for pasta. Any type of dish you can think of, uni can very likely make a unique presence, filling in that much-needed umami flavor.
Can you make uni at home?
While you can’t really make uni at home, as it’s one of the few delicacies that are still harvested directly from the ocean, you can most certainly prepare a dish with it in the comfort of your own kitchen.
There are quite a few online services that will ship pre-prepped food straight to your doorstep, so even if you don’t live in an area where uni is plentiful and easy to find, you can still give this unique food a try.
What is the difference between West Coast uni and East Coast uni?
West Coast uni
West Coast uni is harvested from the coast of California. It’s a thick and rich texture that’s quite a bit more delicate than its East Coast cousins. The color is a golden orange, with a firm texture and brinier flavor.
West Coast uni goes well in colder recipes such as sushi.
East Coast uni
Where West Coast uni is more delicate and buttery, East Coast has a much more bold flavor. It’s tougher and can hold up to hot dishes such as pasta and omelets.
The color is slightly different as well, in the East Coast sea urchins. It’s a brilliant yellow.
Can you freeze uni?
You can’t freeze uni, or uni roe.
The low temperature will change the taste and texture of the uni, and will alter the structure of the eggs. These changes happen because of the recrystallization of moisture, which happens when smaller ice crystals melt and larger crystals grow bigger. This can even lead to a loss of moisture.
This process will also negatively affect the elasticity and appearance of the sea urchin roe. If you have some sea urchins at your disposal, it’s best to use it right away. Unlike other kinds of seafood, it doesn’t keep long at all and it cannot be successfully frozen.
How to store uni?
You kind of can’t store uni.
Sea urchin is very delicate, and they cannot be frozen at all. Not only will it look gross, but the taste and texture will also be completely different after thawing it and you’ll ruin your dish.
This is a food that you need to use right away if you bought it fresh from a market. The longer you hold onto it, the worse the quality will get. And this is actually within a few hours, not days.
For this reason, you shouldn’t try to store your uni at all. Use it the same day you bought it, or you’ll miss out of the perfection of fresh sea urchin.
Instead of trying to make this at home, you should visit a seafood restaurant to give this unique flavor a try. The experience of fresh sea urchin is unlike any other, and it deserves to show you what it’s got at its best, not after wasting away for a day in the fridge.
The agonizingly short shelf life is the cost we must pay for the rich and nutrient-dense content of the sea urchin.
While sea urchin may not be for everyone, these small little guys pack a punch and are a major staple in the cuisine of many different cultures all over the world.