Sea urchin: A pest worth eating

From what Buzzfeed and hipsters tell me, eating insects is the future. By all accounts entomophagy (the eating of insects) is the new black.

We are told that eating insects is pretty much the key to keep feeding our screwed up world, essentially prolonging our ability to totally annihilate it. I understand that people have eaten insects for eons and people all over the world are eating them right now. But I’m an average Australian, so I reckon you’d have to be really hungry, on a dare after 10 beers, or maybe both.

I like to think I’m forward thinking. I separate my glass for recycling; I offset my plane flights with the gratuitous fee offered by airlines; and I’ve learned to appreciate that kale chips are more than just budgie food. But insects are something else. It’s not that I suffer from arachnophobia or a general dislike of cockroaches (which, by the way, I do), it’s just that I don’t quite get the concept, culinarily. Having tried a myriad of insects in different preparations, in different cuisines and prepared by a range of cooks with differing skills, I still have to be convinced that they are anything more than pests.

There is a strange, prehistoric-looking seafood though, once despised, and often regarded as a noxious pest, which is fast gaining culinary recognition. It could well become the must-have ingredient for the upwardly mobile chef. And while the gonads of an ugly sea creature may seem an unlikely delicacy - particularly when eaten raw - sea urchin is one of the truly great food experiences.

Its unusual, almost cartoon-like appearance and slow-moving, easy-to-harvest nature, belies the damage they can inflict on the seagrass beds of subtidal reefs. So the commercial harvesting of sea urchin is a win win – relieving the pressure that they inflict on the sea floor and providing
a delicious seafood.

There are nearly 200 different species of recognised sea urchin which come in all shapes and sizes. Some sea urchins are covered in long, thin spines while others have a hard shell that is made up of chalky plates. Amongst the spines are five paired rows of tiny tube feet. These feet have suckers, which help the sea urchin to move about, capture food, and to hold onto the ocean floor.

Sea urchins also have little claw-like structures among their spines, which they use for protection. These structures, known as pedicellarines, are not only used for defense and obtaining food, but are also vital in keeping the body of the sea urchin clean.

The mouth of the sea urchin, aka ‘the Aristotle’s lantern’, is found in the middle on the underside of the sea urchin’s body, and has five tooth-like plates for feeding.

Species vary in colour from yellow to purple, black to red. Purple sea urchins are an endemic Australian species, which are found in southern Queensland as well as New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia. They inhabit coastal waters up to 35 metres in depth, but are most common in waters shallower than 10 metres. As benthic or bottom-dwelling animals, they are often found attached to rocky reefs, stones, seagrass beds, in crevices and burrows, and on sandy mud bottoms. The species seems to prefer areas not fully exposed to wave motion.

The black sea urchin is also commonly found throughout Southern Australia, and the highly regarded white sea urchin is predominantly found in Victoria and Tasmania.

Although found year round, sea urchin is a somewhat seasonal item and, in Australia, is at its best when it’s roe is fullest between August and November. It is also during this time that the animal’s briny sweetness and creamy texture is at its peak.

Sea urchin roe, or ‘uni’ as it is commonly known in Japan, tastes unmistakably of the sea and has a unique sweetness that can’t be duplicated or satisfactorily described in words.

Each sea urchin contains five ‘lobes’ of roe. The harvesting and processing of which is a very delicate process as the roe easily falls apart. Most prepared roe has been soaked in a saltwater brine solution containing alum to firm the roe and stop it from disintegrating post-processing.

The color and quality of uni is largely dependent on its diet, gender, and time of harvest. Size is also important, as some lobes of uni can be too large or small for a single serve.

Uni has historically been graded based on color, texture, and freshness. The roe can range in color from rich gold to light yellow. The highest grade is a bright yellow or gold, with a firm texture and natural residual sweetness. The next grade of uni is a more muted yellow and has a softer texture and is less sweet. The lowest grade of uni is referred to as ‘vana’ and is often the parts left over from uni that has broken apart during processing or handling.

Obviously, the higher the grade, the higher the price, and fresh uni taken directly from a living sea urchin will command the highest price (and is worth the experience as uni this fresh is noticeably different from uni that was processed 24-plus hours beforehand).

The best roe is produced for the Japanese market, and is shipped as ‘dry uni’ which means it is not shipped in brine. It is all usually a single, consistent grade and is more expensive than the multi-grade punnets.

When buying sea urchin, freshness is important for safety. If buying live, try to get them from a supplier as soon as possible from harvest. Ensure they are live and vigorous, their spines firm and responsive when handled. Try to use them as soon as possible, live urchins can easily shock, causing them to spawn. When using live they are best served fresh like oysters. Scoop the roe from the shell, rinse, chill and serve in the empty shells.

If buying prepared roe, select firm, bright orange or yellow uni with no unpleasant odor or brown blotches. Frozen products tend to have coarse texture, so they’re best used in pasta, sauces or purée for souffles.

Sea urchin roe or uni – whatever name you prefer, give it a try, it’s special, delicious and in season now – they are one bug-like creature worth supporting!

 

John Susman is the director of the seafood industry agency Fishtales. For more views, insights and understanding of the seafood industry visit thefishtale.com.au.