What Is Uni & What does it Taste Like?
If you frequent sushi restaurants, you may have heard someone at a nearby table ordering sea urchin sushi, leaving you wondering, “What is uni? And what does sea urchin taste like?”
As a frequent sushi eater, I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with uni at restaurants. Seeing other people order uni (sea urchin in Japanese) got me wondering about its flavor, recipes, and sustainability. It also led to a discussion of the difference between nigiri vs. sashimi.
It’s not surprising that I often see uni sold in my hometown of Santa Barbara, as Santa Barbara uni is one of the most sought-after varieties in the world. Every Saturday morning local fishermen sell their catch at the fisherman’s market in the harbor.
I recently headed down to the fishermen’s market to find out more. This article discusses everything uni-related, including its flavor, how to eat it, and what exactly uni is. It will give you a better understanding of how this delicacy is enjoyed around the world, from Japanese Sea Urchin Sushi to Italian Ricci di Mare (Spaghetti with Sea Urchin).
What Is Uni?
Uni is the edible part of a sea urchin, scientifically known as globular echinoderms. These spindly creatures are related to starfish and sea cucumbers and reside on the ocean seabed.
950 various sea urchin species dwell in the ocean, with only 18 varieties being edible sea urchins. Some common varieties include the red sea urchin and purple sea urchins. They’re found between the seashore and the deep ocean globally, often in kelp beds. Sea urchins live only in oceans; they cannot survive in bodies of fresh water.
Purple sea urchins are found all along the Pacific coast, from Baja California, Mexico to Alaska. They eat algae, including giant kelp, and one of their primary predators is the sea otter.
The outside of sea urchins is not edible, leaving only a small portion of “meat” on the interior that you can eat. The edible section of uni is considered a delicacy known as sea urchin roe, a misleading name.
Uni is not the roe (eggs) of sea urchins but the sex organs that produce the roe, a common misconception among foodies. Inside each sea urchin are five edible sections of uni, which appear like long orange strips. They have a decadent consistency, almost like a thick mousse when eaten.
Uni is considered an aphrodisiac, like oysters. It’s also quite expensive, but not quite as expensive as truffles or caviar. One sea urchin currently costs $10 at the Santa Barbara Fishermen’s Market, while a shooter is $5.
According to Science Daily, you should only eat uni during months that contain an “r”. September through April is ideal for enjoying fresh uni, as you’ll avoid spawning season when there is less meat in the sea urchins. Out-of-season uni also typically has a watery taste, so it’s best to avoid eating this delicacy from May through August.
If you’re vegan or vegetarian, you’ll probably avoid sea urchins. Since sea urchin is an animal, it does not fit either diet. However, if you’re plant-based for ethical reasons, know that sea urchins do not have brains. If you’re a pescatarian, you can enjoy uni food without going against your morals.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, eating specific animals or animal products (like oysters) is a personal decision based on your morals and lifestyle. As you can see, these are not black and white issues, so it’s best to learn as much as possible about where exactly your food comes from.
Sea Urchin Sustainability
As for sustainability, there has been massive overharvesting of wild-caught sea urchins, unfortunately. Around 50 million tons of uni are collected annually, causing a decrease of about 90% of the urchin population. Eating uni sourced from the ocean contributes to the overharvesting of this marine animal even though each sea urchin produces a few million eggs at a time.
On a positive note, sea urchins are hand-harvested by scuba divers, one of the most sustainable fishing methods. In recent years, some fisheries have been shifting toward a more sustainable approach by regulating the harvest of sea urchins to protect the population. Stephen Watts, an Alabama scientist, believes he has created a solution by making lab-grown sea urchins.
Not only does this help with the issue of overharvesting, but it also allows him to feed the uni differently than wild-caught uni. Thus, he can alter the flavor of his uni to produce a different flavor that’s more umami-rich than ocean-caught uni.
Overfishing isn’t a problem everywhere, however. California actually has the opposite problem. One of the biggest predators of purple sea urchins is sea otters, and they are currently endangered. This has led to a purple sea urchin explosion and the decimation of coastal kelp.
What Does Uni Taste Like?
An aroma of fresh salty ocean water accents Uni’s rich, thick, creamy texture, and sweet buttery flavor. Unlike other shellfish, uni is soft and melts in your mouth.
Uni has a very distinct flavor and texture that is considered an acquired taste. Like most seafood and shellfish, uni should not taste fishy but should taste like the sea. It has a prominent umami flavor accented by a salty taste.
Depending on where the sea urchin comes from, the flavor varies. Other factors that can affect the taste of sea urchins include how fresh the uni is and even what gender of uni you’re consuming.
How to Eat Sea Urchin
Now that you know what uni is and what it tastes like, you may be wondering how to eat it. One of the most common ways you’ll see uni offered is on sushi (more on this below).
If you’d like to experience the true flavor of uni, I recommend trying it served raw right out of the shell with a little lemon juice and/or hot sauce, as a uni shooter, or as nigiri. If you’re in Santa Barbara, buy one from Harry and Stephanie and they will show you how to open and eat uni like a pro.
Do You Eat Uni Raw or Cooked?
Sea urchin is usually eaten raw but can be cooked. If you appreciate uni cooked, you’ll likely enjoy it in a pasta sauce.
Many people opt to eat uni right from the shell, as it offers the freshest flavor via this method. The first step is rinsing the sea urchin meat to avoid a sandy or gritty texture when eaten directly from the shell.
How Is Uni Used in Cooking?
There are many ways to incorporate uni into cooking, though as a general rule, it pairs well with other seafood and pasta varieties. The typical process for cooking sea urchins starts by cleaning the uni.
To reach the meat, chefs typically cut through the bottom of the shell (opposite the spindles). There is a small circle underneath that can be cut around. Once cut, it’s necessary to drain any liquid inside. Then, the remainder of the shell is removed.
Using a spoon, chefs will gently remove each uni section from the shell and then rinse in water or saltwater to remove debris. Afterward, the uni meat is ready to eat or be prepared in various dishes.
Popular Uni Recipes
There are many other ways to enjoy uni which vary greatly depending on which type of cuisine you’re eating. Sea Urchin is enjoyed in Mediterranean cuisine on crostini or blended into pasta. In Japan, it’s often served raw with rice. Below, you’ll find a list of some of the most popular sea urchin dishes.
Sea Urchin Sushi
First on the list of popular dishes is sea urchin sushi. This dish is one of the most common ways to enjoy uni in Japan and sushi restaurants. Typically, uni appears on the menu as nigiri, which includes a small bundle of rice topped with one of the uni strips. This simple uni recipe allows you to savor its richness and custard-like consistency without distracting strong-tasting sauces or seasonings.
The only additional ingredient found in uni nigiri is a small dab of wasabi between the uni piece and the rice. It’s typical for a small amount of wasabi to be on nigiri sushi, as it adds a slight heat and helps bring out the flavor of the fish, or in this case, the uni.
Spaghetti ai Ricci di Mare (Spaghetti with Sea Urchin) is a popular pasta dish in Southern Italian coastal areas such as Campania, Sicily, Sardinia, and Pulia. This creamy seafood pasta dish often made with garlic and white wine or lemon.
Much like oyster shooters, uni shooters are a combination of fresh raw sea urchin meat and flavorings. The Santa Barbara Fishermen’s Market sells uni shooters for $5 each and they are made with uni, finger lime, and ponzu sauce. Local Uni fisherman Harry also recommends making them with tequila.
Sea urchin is becoming an increasingly popular food in the US, with trendier restaurants offering uni butter in appetizers and entrees. This rich spread includes butter, uni, lemon juice, and salt. You’ll see it in use in various ways, from a spread on a cracker to a dab on top of a NY strip steak.
You may even find restaurants that offer a pasta dish that uses uni butter instead of uni pasta sauce.
Where to Try Sea Urchin
You can head to any sushi restaurant and order sea urchins without fear now that you’re a uni connoisseur and know what uni tastes like. While not everyone loves the rich and creamy taste of uni, it is a unique food that many people choose to try at least once in their lifetime. If you’re nervous about preparing or cooking uni at home, try it at a restaurant first.
If you aren’t in a coastal area, you can order a tray of fresh cleaned uni to use for sushi or frozen uni to use in cooking.
- 1 large live purple sea urchin (Uni)
- fresh lemon or lime wedge
- hot sauce
- 1. You may want to use gloves to protect your hands from the sea urchin's spines. Turn your live sea urchin upside down so that its mouth is facing up. Use kitchen shears to cut around and remove the mouth.
- Use your shears to cut the sea urchin in half. Alternatively, you can use two spoons back-to-back to crack it right open.
- Let the water pour out of the urchin. You will notice a black goop inside, which is partially digested sea urchin food. Use a wooden skewer or chopstick to clean this out so that just the orange "meat" remains in the shell.
- Use a spoon to carefully lift the uni from the shell. Add a squeeze of lemon and/or hot sauce to enjoy fresh and raw uni right out of the shell.
- Alternatively, add pieces of raw fresh uni to small pieces of sushi rice to make uni sushi and serve right away with soy sauce. See notes for more serving suggestions for eating sea urchin.
If you don't want to deal with opening and cleaning a sea urchin, you can buy trays of cleaned uni at fishmarkets.
What does Uni Taste Like?
Fresh uni should have a salty ocean water aroma, creamy custard-like texture, and sweet butterfly flavor.
Uni goes well with Japanese cuisine, or other seafood, especially Mediterranean pasta dishes and caviar.
1. Uni Sushi: Add fresh uni meat onto small pieces of rice to make nigiri sushi.
2. Sea Urchin Pasta: Add into seafood pasta or spread onto crostini for a Mediterranean take.
3. Uni Shooters: Place a piece of fresh uni meat into a glass and top with a little tequila and lime.
4. Uni Crostini: Place a piece of uni meat on a slice of toasted baguette and garnish with sliced chives.
5. Uni Don: Make a sea urchin rice bowl. Fill a bowl with one serving of rice and place the uni on top. Serve with wasabi and soy sauce, and any other toppings you'd like.
Thank you to Stephanie and Harry for educating me on Santa Barbara Uni at the Fishermen's Market!
Nutrition Information:Yield: 1 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 88Total Fat: 2gSaturated Fat: 0gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 1gCholesterol: 25mgSodium: 60mgCarbohydrates: 18gFiber: 4gSugar: 4gProtein: 6g
Nutrition information is automatically calculated by Nutritionix. I am not a nutritionist and cannot guarantee accuracy. If your health depends on nutrition information, please calculate again with your favorite calculator.