Photo by Richie Talboy

You Uni Live Once: Learning to Love Sea Urchin

Uni, the golden, velvety meat harvested from sea urchins, tastes like heaven and has recently become a coveted menu item, as ubiquitous as avocados. GARAGE investigates the history of America's uni-mania.

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Apr 10 2018, 10:43pm

Photo by Richie Talboy

When you order uni sushi at 15 East, the Michelin-starred restaurant in Manhattan helmed by chef Noriyuki Takahashi, three heaps of it arrive on a thick ceramic slab. It was my first time trying the velvety, yolk-yellow meat harvested from these spiny prehistoric creatures; uni is coyly euphemized as “roe,” but technically it is the sea urchin’s sex organ. My plate held samples from the three best fisheries in the world: Maine; Santa Barbara; and Hokkaido, Japan. I wondered whether I’d be able to taste the difference.

I did. Maine sea urchin is, at first, mild; its texture is a bit like custard, and it pops under my tongue like caviar. It tasted dark, with the thick depth of molasses, cut by seawater salinity. Californian uni is bright, its creamy sweetness reminiscent of lemon and baking sunlight. Best of all is the Hokkaido variety: a fresh, briny bite dancing over rich, funky umami depth, like a sharp breath of air on a cold beach. I’d never tasted anything like it.

Photo by Richie Talboy

Uni has emerged from traditional Japanese cuisine to acquire a mythos for transforming literally any dish into ambrosia. A dollop of the rich ochre meat, like an oceanic truffle, is an upscale variant on the ubiquitous avocado. It’s smeared on a toasted panino at El Quinto Pino, where its sweetness is cut with tangy mustard oil; blended into custard and served in its spiky shell at Kappo Masa; and frozen and finely grated over shrimp and seawater at Noma. At John Dory, tongues of uni are strained and mixed with lemon juice and butter and served in thin knife curls on toast. A Maine seafood exporter fries it with bacon into a crispy snack that you could devour at a football game.

At the Pool in Manhattan, you’ll find uni on the caviar menu. “We love to eat it that way,” head chef Rich Torrisi said, recalling a memorable uni dish he sampled in France: Spanish uni served in the shell with frothed horseradish. “It was incredible! It brought out all the amazing sweetness and brininess.”

With uni-mania at its zenith, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this perilous echinoderm is a recently discovered manna of the ocean. In fact, sea urchins have pricked fingers and whetted appetites in American kitchens for much longer. In the early 20th century, Maine sea urchins were shipped to New York City to meet the demand of Sicilian newcomers, who called it riccio, a word that originally meant “hedgehog.” In 1929, an aghast New York Times reporter watched as an Italian fisherman in the South Street Seaport cracked open the bristly globe, threw back his head, and dropped the raw slivers of yellow meat into his mouth.

Today’s uni explosion dates to the 1970s, when Japanese seafood traders turned to the United States to supplement their domestic supply. For fortune seekers in California and Maine willing to risk the dangers of diving (not to mention shark attacks), it was a gold rush; by 1990, some divers were hauling in $2,500 worth of sea urchins a week. Today, imported sea urchin in Japanese markets sells for about $52 a pound, neck and neck with the domestic variety.

When Joseph Leask began diving in the 1990s, most of the sea urchins he harvested went to Japan. Last year, most of Leask’s sea urchins were sold within the United States. For 38 days in autumn and winter—a strict limit set by the Maine Department of Marine Resources—he and a small crew head out before dawn into coastal waters, often in Penobscot Bay, where they plunge into the frigid shallows, equipped with scuba suits and tanks of air, to pry the spiky invertebrates off rock ledges with pronged metal hooks. “Diving is peaceful, euphoric,” he told me. “When you’re under the water, there’s no cell phones, no mindless chatter. It’s probably the only place in the world where you’re weightless.”

After decades of anticipating the behavior of the spine-shelled echinoderms, Leask describes their intelligence with a kind of awe. Though the creatures are primitive—they date from the Paleozoic era—he’s seen them cleverly burrow under gravel to cool off when the water grows too warm; and this year, he discovered a large herd, numbers he hadn’t seen in 20 years, lined up along the center of a river and guessed that they migrated there to avoid the pounding waves of a recent storm. “The more I do with them, the more it blows my mind, the intricacies of these animals,” he told me. “Sometimes they show up and there’s no explanation: Why are they here? They came from nowhere.”

When Greenwich Village was the haunt of Beat writers and bohemians in the 1950s, you could peer into the windows of Bleecker Street’s fish markets and find live sea urchins bobbing in tanks of salted water. Now that New Yorkers have rediscovered a taste for their plush, yellow penetralia, live urchins are back. They’ve been on sale at Brooklyn’s Greenpoint Fish and Lobster Company since it opened four years ago. “They’re one of our best-selling items,” co-owner Vinny Milburn told me. “They always have been.”

A version of this story first appeared in GARAGE No. 14, available to buy here.