Samui Wining & Dining
Catch of the Day

That prickly delicacy, the sea urchin.

 

Page-2-3The spines have been designed by nature to protect these shellfish from being eaten. But man, unlike predatory sea creatures, has tools to overcome these prickly obstacles. If you’re a seafood lover, it’s well worth the effort to break your way through.

      Sea urchins, sometimes called sea hedgehogs, are small, spiny, globular animals. The shell of the urchin is round and spiny, typically from three to ten centimetres across. Common colours include black and dull shades of green, olive, brown, purple, blue, and red. These pin-cushions of the sea move slowly, feeding mostly on algae and kelp. Once the creature dies, the spines slowly fall off, and the beautiful patterned shells are revealed. Alive and anchored to rocks or lying on the seabed, they’re the bane of surfers everywhere!

      Actually, it’s not the roe, but the gonads of both male and female sea urchins (yes, really) that are eaten, mistakenly referred to as sea urchin roe or corals, and are a culinary delicacy in many parts of the world. In cuisines around the Mediterranean, it’s often eaten raw, with lemon, and known as ‘ricci’ on Italian menus where it’s sometimes used in pasta sauces. It can also flavour omelettes, scrambled eggs, fish soup, mayonnaise, béchamel sauce for tartlets, soufflés, or

Hollandaise sauce. In Chilean cuisine, it’s served raw with lemon, onions, and olive oil.

      In Japan, sea urchin is known as ‘uni’, and it can retail for as much as $450 per kilo. It’s served raw as sashimi or in sushi, with soy sauce and wasabi. Japan imports large quantities from various places, including the United States and South Korea, and Japan’s demand for sea urchin has raised concerns about overfishing.

      Native Americans in California are also known to eat sea urchins, and though they are commonly eaten by the Alaska native population around Kodiak Island, it’s more commonly exported, mostly to, you guessed it, Japan. In the West Indies, slate pencil urchins are sought after, and in New Zealand, urchins are known as kina in Maori, a delicacy traditionally eaten raw.

      Due to the part of the anatomy eaten, sea urchin has been considered an aphrodisiac in Japan for thousands of years, and only rose (excuse the pun) to popularity in North America in the late 20th century. The gonads of this hermaphrodite sea creature are scooped out of the urchin’s spiny shell in five custard-like, golden sections.

       From a nutritional standpoint, sea urchin is one of the most prominent culinary sources of anandamide, a cannabinoid neurotransmitter, sometimes known at the brain’s natural marijuana. Does this mean that eating urchin will produce a similar effect to ingesting marijuana? Probably not, but it’s possible that it activates the dopamine system in the brain, which is the section that anticipates rewards, in other words, desire. But this isn’t its only nutritional benefit – it’s also rich with protein, fibre, and vitamin C, and is a healthy source of vitamins A and E, iodine and calcium. And at only 125 calories per 100 grams, (about two to three pieces of sushi), it makes a nice healthy snack.

      So where does the process of enjoying your ‘uni’ start? Well, they’re one of the few remaining ocean delicacies that must be harvested from the wild and can’t, for most purposes, be frozen. Urchins are hand-cut by professional scuba divers, or, in some parts of Korea, by women who train from childhood to hold their breath and dive in cold water. These ‘haenyo’, or sea women, dive as deep as 15 metres with no gear other than a mask and a knife, gathering sea urchins, abalone, seaweed and conch. Apparently, women are better able to tolerate cold water, where urchins are usually found, and it’s become a traditional way for them to support their families by selling their catch.

         The reason for the high price is the labour involved in harvesting urchins. Aside from the initial collection of the creatures, they then must be cracked and cleaned of the gonads, which are then meticulously cleaned in turn. The flesh is then treated, packaged, and possibly shipped. As it’s shipped fresh rather than frozen, it’s subject to perishing quickly, so is often quickly purchased by sushi restaurants and shops. When shopping for fresh uni, you should look for the brightest colouring. Bright yellow is normally preferred, but bright orange is considered just as good. Pieces should be firm and not leaking fluids excessively.

         Often found in paper-thin slices atop sushi rolls, it’s the soft, buttery texture that delights its fans. The taste can sometimes vary depending upon the region it’s harvested from and whether or not it’s in season. Aside from the standard treat of uni as sushi, other variations include uni tempura, uni custard, and various appetisers. It can also be used to make various uniquely flavoured sauces. However, be wary of cooking uni for too long, as the flavour can quickly be lost. Chefs are continually finding new and unique ways to prepare this delicacy. So if you’re a lover of seafood, and not squeamish about eating another living creature’s gonads, perhaps try a spot of sea urchin when you’re next visiting New Zealand, the USA, exploring the Mediterranean or travelling to Japan, or perhaps just dining at your local sushi restaurant. You’ll find a few right here, on Samui.

         

Rosanne Turner


 


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