10 Things You Didn't Know About Uni (Guess Which Body Part You're Eating)

10 Things You Didn't Know About Uni (Guess Which Body Part You're Eating)

Here's why you should respect that beautiful sea urchin on your plate—and eat it too.

By Lizbeth Scordo

You've probably been seeing uni on more and more menus lately, and not just at Japanese restaurants. The roe that comes from the sharp-spined sea urchin (known as uni in Japanese) used to be relegated to sushi joints, but an increasing number of chefs around the country are getting creative with the stuff, using it in everything from pasta to sandwiches and desserts. If you're not yet a sworn uni addict, or you haven't mustered the nerve or desire to try it yet, these surprising facts might convince you to take the plunge. From how it finds its way to your plate, to the specific, er, organs that uni is derived from, here are 10 facts to know about this super-cool sea animal.

1. There's no need to worry about farm-raised vs. wild.

Why? Because "Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the sea urchin you eat is wild caught," says Dave Rudie, owner of the San Diego-based Catalina Offshore Products, a seafood purveyor and sea urchin exporter.

2. A diver most likely caught your uni by hand.

And it's not an easy job. Divers delve down to the ocean floor while connected to a surface air supply a la a scuba diver. "Here in California our divers are dealing with limited visibility and all kinds of issues," Rudie explains. "And the regulation is urchins have to be 3.25 inches [to be harvested], so they're looking for size and quality." The divers use hand-held rakes to harvest them and yes, they wear gloves. Because, otherwise, ouch.

3. You're actually eating the urchin's gonads.

Yep, that "roe" that's usually yellow or orange in color and usually has a briny, slightly sweet taste, is indeed a sea urchin's reproductive organs. Actually, pretend we didn't tell you that. 

4. Red sea urchins can be black.

Along the West Coast, the red sea urchinspecies is what's most prevalent. However, most of those – about 90 percent off the SoCal coast – actually have black spines, the color that many of us associate with urchins. Urchins with spines that are more red in hue become more prevalent the further north you go, according to Rudie. That exterior color, however, has no effect on what they taste like, that comes more from the urchin's diet of algae and kelp.

5. Chefs are using uni in more daring dishes.

Uni pasta offerings – from spaghetti to gnocchi – have become pretty ubiquitous at Italian eateries these days, but there are other interesting incarnations of urchin to be found out there, including desserts like uni flan at the seafood-centric Skool in San Francisco  and uni gelato at Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York.

6. But it's still served more at sushi spots than anywhere else.

"Ninety percent of the product goes to Japanese sushi restaurants and is consumed as sashimi or sushi with rice and nori," according to Rudie, whose company sells about a million pounds of the stuff a year.

7. You can skip the restaurant and buy uni at the market.

One urchin usually contains about five strips worth of roe, and many fish markets as well as high-end grocers sell the roe already prepared in trays or wooden boxes. And you can get even more adventurous: "There's nothing like eating fresh uni right from the ocean … and some customers do buy live and crack them themselves, but it is messy and more work," says Rudie. "Also the live urchins don't keep fresh very long."

8. You need to pay attention to smell and texture.

The roe should have a fresh ocean scent. Any kind of super fishy or off-putting smell is a red flag. And look for firm custardy roe that's orange or yellow. The roe gets runnier the older it is.

9. El Nino is hurting the urchin population.

The El Nino climate pattern makes ocean waters warmer, which in turn, kills off kelp (what the urchins eat) and the urchins themselves. With El Nino conditions over the last year coupled with an increase demand for urchin, uni is costing consumers more these days.

10. Some urchins may very well outlive you.

According to a study, the red sea urchin is one of the longest-living creatures on Earth. They can live up to 100 years with some reaching the ripe old age of 200, giving new meaning to to the term "respect your elders."

Ready to tackle uni at home? Here's Rudie's recipe for sea urchin shooters

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