The (strange) popularity of Sea Urchin


I've been living and eating in New York for almost two years now, and in the last year I have noticed something on menus that still comes as a surprise: sea urchin, perhaps better known as uni. I thought this strange occurrence was limited to the east coast but when I went to San Francisco this past March, I found it there as well. I've had it in pasta, in oysters, on toast, in soba, in sushi, in appetizers and in main dishes. I've even had kale sautéed in uni butter, which I am still trying to figure out how it actually exists. Why has this unattractive sea creature, which has long been avoided, become the de-facto star ingredient?

The best dishes I've had so far were a handmade spaghetti with crab, uni, basil, green onion and peperoncino at Lincoln Ristorante, and the above dish, at a restaurant in Sausalito called Fish, made up of uni and avocado on toasts, atop a beet purée. The menu noted the uni were from Mendocino, which seemed to throw down a little Cali you-know-what. The uni were enormous, almost as big as the golden state. They were plump and firm, and, unlike how I usually eat the delicacy, they were almost completely unadulterated. No straining, mixing, blending, or cooking, just out of the shell and onto the bread.

I grew up eating at a sushi bar with a revolving conveyor belt. I started slow––with tempura––and then I moved out in a slow fan among the tamer fish: tuna, crab and yellowtail. Uni was never on my rotation. It actually didn't hit my culinary desires until my second trip to Japan, last August. I think having the opportunity to eat at the famed Tsukiji fish market at 7am, twice, is probably something everyone needs to do. Uni for breakfast? This I could get used to.

My new favorite ingredient lead me to the internet. I read every calorie guide I could on sea urchin. They each shared a slightly different variation but here's what I can say is true (I think): it's basically 40/60 fat to protein with almost no carbohydrates.

Serious Eats has a great roundup of sea urchin dishes to try in New York, and the Times wrote a piece about uni, Escape from the Sushi Bar, way back in 2009. It still reads like it could have been written yesterday. And, because I'm crazy for it, I might try stopping by Eataly or the Lobster Place in Chelsea Market for my very own tray. Last but not least, here's a batch of fish photos on Flickr.

Do you have a favorite? Leave a comment and let me know.