Ever wondered why sea urchin seems to be popping up on nearly every fancy restaurant’s menu these days? The answer may not be what you think.
Thanks to advancements in cooling as well as the use of aircraft, uni from Hokkaido can be shipped anywhere in the world. Any chef/restaurant can get their hands on what used to be a Japanese delicacy if they are willing to pay for it. Demand is so high for sea urchins that as recently as June, 300 grams of top-quality urchins (10 ounces - a can of soda is 12 ounces) from Hadate Suisan Corp. were auctioned at Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo for about $400(!).
The high cost isn’t just a result of increasing demand and shipping costs but also because of the surprising amount of painstaking manpower that goes into making every box beautiful.
Japanese cuisine puts an extraordinary emphasis on the appearance of food and sea urchin is an extremely delicate and temperamental creature. Any rough handling of the urchin can cause stress to the animal, which in turn affects the quality of its roe. It is for that reason that workers at Hadate Suisan Corp. treat sea urchin with the greatest of care. Not only do employees do their best to maintain the integrity of each piece of roe, and then sort them by color, they also carefully place the roe piece by piece into beautifully arranged, double-layered cardboard boxes.
Left side: Sea urchins being placed in wooden trays in Hokkaido, Japan. Picture by Eiji Hori. Right side: Sea urchin tray at Neta in NYC. Picture by yours truly.
All I can say is - raw sea urchin? raw meat? AND beautifully presented on a wooden plank? Yes, please.
Niku-uni = 4 umami flavor bombs delivered in a uniquely-flavored crunchy vessel.
The four stacks of raw bliss were composed of Santa Barbara uni, chuck flap, shiso leaf and seaweed. The raw meat and uni combo greeted my tastebuds as perfectly refreshing little bites. It’s hard to imagine something so salty & savory also tasting so fresh and cool. Well worth the $26.
Not only does uni taste great, it has some real health benefits.
It’s a good source of all of the below:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin A
Sea Urchin is also low in fat (each ounce has about 1 gram of fat) and low in calories (34 calories per ounce — lower than the more popular sushi items of tuna or mackerel)
Sea Urchin has also long been used as an aphrodisiac in many cultures such as Japan and those around the Mediterranean.
If you know me, you know that I think everything tastes better with a little egg on it. Is there anything that a raw quail egg or a dollop of roe won’t make better? OK, probably a few things but not many.
I went to Sakamai for their Egg on Egg on Egg ($18) and it blew my mind. Nestled on a bed of scrambled eggs, sat mouthwatering pieces of sea urchin hugged against a spoon of sturgeon caviar. The moist ingredients glistened from the rustic urchin shell. It begged for me to pick up my spoon. When I did, and got all pieces of the umami threesome in my mouth I felt like royalty.
Each decadent and sinful bite makes you feel like you want to eat one of these every night and maybe go for another round in the morning.
A lesson in symbiosis from The Octonauts — why crabs and sea urchins need each other — one for food, the other for protection.
Jump to minute 4:35
I checked the Noma menu repeatedly a few days before our flight and saw “sea urchin and duck skin” slated for one of the courses. I could only hope that when we got there for dinner, on February 15, the menu hadn’t changed.
Luckily, it didn’t. Our incredible server Kat of Big Food Small World, confirmed urchin was still on the menu shortly into the meal. (Kat – that lucky girl spent 4 years in Hokkaido (!!!) and also appreciates her urchin)
As you would expect this urchin course was one of my favorites and here is why.
Sandwiched between a bed of crunchy toast and a crispy duck fat chip laid a pillow of creamy briny goodness. The texture of the components in this dish separated it from all urchin dishes that I had before. Sure the Faroe Island urchin was exquisite but the uniqueness of the dish was in the dance between creaminess and crunchiness.
The sea urchin exploration only got better as the already incredible meal came to an end and we were invited to tour the kitchen.
The staff was still buzzing (chefs were getting ready for their Saturday Night Projects) when the amazing chef Nate escorted us to the first of several active kitchens. One of the dishes we were lucky enough to see “back stage” was the duck skin sheets from the urchin dish chilling on a prep counter.
The pinnacle of my Noma dinner came when our group got to meet and speak with René Redzepi in the Noma test kitchen. Kat introduced our group and mentioned to René that I had a sea urchin blog. When he asked me if I liked sea urchin, I had to correct him, “Like?! I love it.” To which he replied, “Really?”
That’s when I entered into a culinary euphoria that would last several hours after we left. I thought to myself: How am I having a conversation about urchin with René Redzepi??” Rene went on to explain to us that his urchin is handpicked from a guy in the Faroe Islands*. He spoke more about how in many places the urchin come on trays and they are treated with lye. I can officially die now.
Lars Williams – head of R&D (who presented a few of the noma courses at our table) was also there. He added that urchins are really sensitive and need to be handled with the greatest of care or they get agitated. I trust in their hands the urchin are handled with great care.
Some more thoughts on Noma:
(I do this reluctantly since I’m not looking to make this site about reviewing restaurants but I was so moved on so many levels by Noma that I have to.)
Beyond being fortunate enough to eat the most innovative, mostly foraged vegetarian centric meals in the world, the entire experience was unforgettable. From the time we walked in, we were greeted warmly by an unusual number of the staff. Most dishes came out of the kitchen accompanied by a Noma chef who explained its ingredients and preparation and took the time to answer follow-up questions. We were lucky enough to be one of few tables asked to tour the kitchens, private event space and herb garden and meet and chat with Rene Redzepi for close to an hour.
This dining experience far exceeded anything I expected. Noma is special in every sense of the world. The food was like nothing I’d ever had before – memorable and special. But, it would just be another great dinner if not without the knowledgeable, passionate (and good looking) staff that we met at every encounter and the warm, inclusive atmosphere. In my experience there has been a direct relation between the number of Michelin stars a restaurant has and how uptight and uncomfortable the vibe. Noma is just the opposite and gives me hope that other top restaurants of the world will follow noma’s lead.
*Roderick Sloan is noma’s sea urchin guy and owner of Arctic Caviar Company. Chances are if you’ve eaten urchin at the world’s top restaurants, that urchin was handpicked by Sloan. Headquartered in Leinesfjord, Norway, Arctic Caviar Company is just starting to offer specialized tours for the urchin enthusiast but it will be a trek. Obviously I’ve already looked into it.
Here’s the mouth watering description from laist:
"It’s made by sous vide cooking some Santa Barbara sea urchin, then pureeing it and mixing it with a cumin simple syrup, muddled roasted nori, lemon juice, and tequila. It’s served over a big cube in a rocks glass rimmed with applewood smoked salt, then garnished with more nori and some sweetened sesame."
I know where I’m staying and drinking the next time I’m out west.
While enjoying a little surprise staycation in Soho (during one of the coldest weekends in NYC), my hubs took me out for cozy dinner at The Dutch. In typically fashion, we flooded our table with several appetizers.
First up came this little sea urchin ditty ($12) served on ice. I carefully portioned my spoon so each velvety bite would include some uni balanced with a pop of vinegar mushroom and nondescript pillowy foam. It was difficult to master since the sea urchin pieces were on the small side and there was a lot of foam. I’m not saying that this foam was not good, the texture was a great compliment to the uni. It was just unmemorable and difficult to identify. I guess my biggest issue was the uni to foam ratio. I think the dish would have worked better if there was more uni or far less foam. Would also not have minded a hotter pepper — the espelette is only a 4,000 on the Scoville scale.
Got my uni fix this week at 15 East.
I started out with an appetizer of Uni Ankimo - steamed monkfish liver, sea urchin and ponzu sauce ($18). Besides loving uni, I’m a fan of all roe as well as liver - all kinds. When I saw this app combining two of my favorite things, I knew I had to try it. This dish was chilled and refreshing but sadly I didn’t really taste the uni. The ponzued liver was overpowering the delicate uni and the truth is there really wasn’t much uni at all.
My main sushi course did fair better. I had several sushi pieces and also ordered up a mini uni tasting which I saved for my last two bites: 1 piece of Hokkaido uni ($12) and 1 piece of Santa Barbara uni ($8). I thought it would be fun to taste two different types of uni back to back and see if there really was any difference in taste. I went for the Californian first and then for the Japanese. I found the taste of both to be sweet and buttery however the Japanese uni was firmer compared to the softer, creamier California uni. While I do not know which of the half a dozen varieties of Japanese sea urchin I tried, I suspect the Californian was Premium grade* due to the softness. To be honest — I think I enjoyed the Santa Barbara uni better.
*my opinion only!
PS — all about Uni Grades:
California Gold: Bright yellow/orange, firm texture (formerly A-Grade)
California Premium: Mild yellow color, softer pieces (formerly B-Grade)
Vana: Dark color, melting soft, also known as Vana (formerly C-Grade)
Gold and premium grades of uni are always fresh. Vana is usually frozen unless it’s requested to be fresh. All grades of uni can be eaten raw.
Photo courtesy of the official tourism site of Pompeii
A new study provides evidence that some inhabitants of Pompeii dined on all types of delicacies — including sea urchin!
Steven Ellis and his team spent nearly a decade excavating and analyzing charred food waste left in ancient cesspits and latrines behind food stalls. This finding is actually quite interesting as it’s been commonly believed that the masses basically scrounged for their every meal and that only the elites had access to upscale, imported foods.
Uni Ikura Donburi Photo by Kyoto Foodie
I know New Year’s is really big in Japan and it got me searching for some uni inspired New Year’s meals. Even though this post is 3 years old today, I can’t imagine a better first meal of the year — uni and salmon roe over rice accompanied by some champagne or rose. Kudos to KyotoFoodie who is able to create this dish at home!
Must find a way to recreate this myself.
Last weekend while visiting the fam in San Diego, I had the opportunity to eat fresh uni for the first time. My cousin recommended we check out the market in Little Italy on Saturday morning and stop by Poppa’s Fresh Fish Company's stall. Poppa's brings the freshest seafood to the area's farmers markets.
Each urchin is $7 to go and $10 to eat on site, where they open it for you. We chose to eat there.
It was bare bones style - grab a plastic spoon, a lime or two and dig in. I squeezed a couple of lime drops over all the uni pieces and scooped out the freshest, airiest uni that I’ve ever had. (I feel extra awesome about this tasting since I converted my dad and aunt to uni lovers!)
I’d definitely be a regular if I lived there. I’d also probably check out Poppa’s other locations around the area.
I’d been itching to try out Toro NYC ever since I heard about the ‘uni spoon’ and despite the chilly night, shwirtz and I left the comfort of our BK apartment to go get spooned. We were the first ones to arrive as the restaurant opened and selected seats at the back bar which overlooked the plancha. We ordered half a dozen tapas including all uni items — staying true to my faith — when uni is on the menu — you order it all.
The mini uni tasting was incredible. Here is what went down:
1st course — Erizos con caviar $22
Caviar, sea urchin and quail egg spoon with Iberico jamon
Ridiculous marriage of salt & silk. The truly greatest moments in life leave you wanting more and I could easily have had 2 or 3 more of these.
2nd course — Bocadillo de erizos $13
Pressed sandwich of sea urchin, miso butter and picked mustard seeds
As a 25 year old veteran of the grilled cheese, this sammy was your grown up version on crack.
3rd course — Suquet de mariscos $17
Catalan stew of lobster, sea urchin, sea beans and parsnip
The luxurious broth was packed with flavor and made us wish we had a side order of bread to mop up the last licks. The sheer bounty of uni was way more than I expected for the price.
Everything we ate was great but I won’t bore anyone with those dishes, plus they belong on a different site.
Last note — Toro is beautifully designed restaurant with attentive staff (sometimes a little overboard) and great service. Definitely a trendy spot and catering to that sort of crowd. It’s also a tapas place so by definition dishes are small, tasting sizes (which I personally love). You’ll need a few to fill up. All the more fun.
On my last trip to Japan I was so jet lagged that I couldn’t get out of bed to check out the famous Tsukiji fish market. After learning about a new dish being sold there: The Uni-man, a new puffy fish cake with a fish, yam and sea urchin paste filling, I think I’ve finally found the incentive I need to be able to get over there next time around. Price: ¥300 (roughly $3 USD).
For ¥840 ($8 USD) you can also opt for the Uni-man Kiwami (meaning “the ultimate”) that includes raw pieces of uni on top of similar cake. The inside is home to a white sauce made of steamed sea urchin, sea urchin paste, soy milk and rice powder.