Plate or Pass: Live sea urchin
Why is it that some of the least sexy foods are considered the most divine? Sea urchins, for example, are essentially spiky sea floor garbage-eaters with anuses on the tops of their bodies, that sell for upward of $14 per pound. Sound appetizing?
Last Friday, Hot Dish headed to Coastal Seafoods to find out what all the fuss was about. Since urchins usually sell out within a few hours of their arrival, we asked an employee to put one aside for us. What we got was likely the largest urchin of the of the bunch -- weighing in at just under two pounds, the spiky black creature was the size of a basketball.
Coastal Seafoods primarily brings urchins in for Sea Change, where they're the stars of two dishes: uni on toast with citrus kosho and fennel butter, and pappardelle with uni bottargo (salted and cured roe). Jamie Malone, the chef de cuisine, said Sea Change's uni bottargo is cured in-house.
Sea urchin roe is also served raw at Fuji Ya, Nami, and Origami, which sometimes offers live urchin in the shell.
Jahn Brink, a self-proclaimed fishmonger who was working at the front counter of Coastal Seafoods, gave us the lowdown on everyone's favorite echinoderm.
"They are related to a starfish, so on the inside they've got five lobes [which] kinda look like petals," he said, grabbing an urchin from the case and pointing to the lobes. "You can see it's got a lot of quills on it." Yes, yes we could. Urchins are covered in quills, rightfully earning the nickname "hedgehogs of the sea."
While Brink spoke, a creamy yellow liquid started seeping out of the hole on the top of the urchin, which we hadn't yet realized was the anus. We tried to ignore it.
Brink explained that the easiest way to open a sea urchin is to plant two butter knives in its anus and pull them apart. "It'll crack open like a coconut," he said. If you want to preserve the shell for serving, your best bet is to cut a circle around the mouth of the urchin with kitchen scissors.
Brink said the urchin's roe is worth the effort.
"I think it's really really wonderful. It's really oceany and kinda floral. They're sweet and creamy, but it's got a very complicated, wonderful flavor," he said.
We took the urchin home with the understanding that we'd be searching for five long strips of roe, known as uni in most asian dishes. It wasn't until days later that we learned the truth: The yellow chunks of "roe" we'd sort of assumed were eggs were actually giant gonads where the sea urchin produces both egg and sperm.
But the fun didn't stop there! Apparently our urchin was frightened by the car ride and cold weather, because when we brought him in the house, we noticed a urine-like substance had collected in the bottom of the plastic bag. We took a deep breath, drained the secretion, and set the poor creature on a cutting board for a closer look.
The urchin's quills moved in all different directions and were especially energetic when touched. We flipped it over and began cutting a fist-sized hole around its mouth, but quickly realized that it was starting to leak fluids from its bum again. We ran it to the sink and finished cutting the hole, at which point the urchin's mouth promptly fell into its body.
The inside of a sea urchin is like a little snapshot of the ocean, mixed with a smorgasbord of organs. We found algae, something resembling intestines, some black bits, and the fallen mouth with its massive teeth (which can apparently chew through rocks). Surprisingly, no foul smells were emitted at any point during the operation.
We'd been told to use a pointed spoon to gently scoop the five yellow "tongues" from the urchin's body, being careful not to tear them apart. We didn't do it perfectly, but most of the gonad bits were extracted. We then placed them in a bowl of salt water -- and we're told the salt part is important -- and let them soak, occasionally fishing through the bowl with bare hands to remove any remaining membranes or excrement.
Though there was nothing left inside of its body, the urchin was still moving. We threw it in the trash and hoped it wouldn't penetrate later nightmares.
Five yellow nads sat on our small plate. Malone of Sea Change said the traditional way to eat uni is to place it on your tongue and press it toward the roof of your mouth. At that point, we still thought they were egg sacks, so a few friends were willing to try them. We took turns placing the gonads on our tongues, cringing, and swallowing them whole.
The crowd reactions were as follows:
"It's like I cracked an egg in my mouth and, like, mixed a little bit of sand into it. It doesn't really taste like anything though. It's really not that bad."
"It was really nice to touch, but once it's in your mouth, it's like a sponge."
"It reminded me of gelatin that hasn't fully hardened."
It's not that it tasted particularly bad -- we just struggled with the texture. It felt like chewing through the rubbery flesh of a tongue. Plus, it seemed that the urchin consumed a few sand particles that weren't removed during the salt-water soak, which made for an unsavory surprise.
Though we didn't particularly enjoy the experience, we can see why urchin is considered a delicacy by some. It's light and tastes strongly of the sea with sweet, floral undertones. Uni would be delicious in a pasta, so long as it isn't taking center stage. If only we were still oblivious to the fact that we were eating raw gonads...
Verdict: When it's served on its own, we'll pass. But we're not at all averse to trying it in a dish -- especially prepared by the experienced folks at Sea Change.
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