The world loves sushi, and yet decades ago, it was known only in Japan. Nowadays, you can buy a California Roll at a Kansas convenience store. But the sushi staples are played out... and often very unsustainable.
Once you've graduated from beginner items, like salmon and tuna, your palette may crave the more exotic. And there's nothing more so than the California Sea Urchin, aka Uni.
Leon-Paul Fargue, a French poet, once said, "eating an oyster is like kissing the sea on the lips." Well then I say that eating uni is like getting to third base with the ocean. Paired with a little quinoa, uni is an afternoon delight!
Step 1: Know Thy Fisherman
A good fishmonger, like TwoXSea in SF or Real Good Fish in Monterey, will tell you: the species, the boat, the harvest method and location. Transparent pricing is always a plus too. This urchin is 1.9 pounds @ $4.50/lb. It yields five pieces for a cost of $1.71/each. I'm lucky to know these guys and buy direct. (They also sell on goodeggs.com if you're a Bay Area local.)
This 1.9 pound, live urchin cost $8.55 with more than half of the weight being water. The five pieces of uni weighed about eight grams, making it the same price as silver (February, 2015).
Step 2: Their Foster Home Before You Adopt
Commercially, live sea urchin are gathered into baskets by underwater divers using SCUBA. Recreational divers may harvest while relying on held breath alone.
They are then delivered to your fishmonger in styrofoam containers with wet newspaper and gel packs. Ideally, they are stored in a tank with cold, salty water circulating. You'll keep yours in a refrigerator. (The back of the bottom shelf is often the coldest part). Keep thick, wet newspaper on top of them to protect their quills and place frozen gel packs on top of the newspaper.
This specific tank on Pier 45 in San Francisco pumps up bay water from 5-20 feet below, depending on the tide. The urchin are stored in perforated bins to keep them separated from the live dungeness crabs that share the same tank.
Step 3: The Food Photography Setup
Love me a good photoshoot! Though all-white backgrounds are proven to increase ecommerce conversion rates, I still love the look of a wood cutting board for seafood. On the top right is an HPS light, since sufficient natural light was unavailable. Behind my computer is a black foam board blocking light from my work area.
Step 4: The Lighting Situation
This "high" pressure sodium light from a "friend's" grow room serves as the next best thing to natural light for food photography. To mimic sunlight, choose lighting with a temperature between 5000-6000 Kelvin. Pictured above is a 600 watt light that is so uncomfortably bright that I wear sunglasses while shooting.
Step 5: Live Sea Urchin - Top View
Whole sea urchin have spines like a porcupine, although these are not sharp. They wiggle around and the tips can attach to rocks. The more the spines wiggle when moved, the better shape the urchin is in.
Step 6: Live Sea Urchin - Underside and Mouth
The mouth of the sea urchin is in the middle. After dissection, you'll see that it bears a striking resemblance to the mouth of that alien you had nightmares about as a child.
Step 7: Opening Live Sea Urchin With Scissors, Knife, Screwdriver, Etc.
Puncture through the mouth and cut both sides enough to crack open with your hands.
Step 8: Live Urchin Freshly Opened
The prize of sea urchin is the orange pieces, known as 'uni' in Japanese. The technical term is gonads. Yup, that's what you're eating.
Step 9: Cleaned Urchin Half
Use a spoon and your fingers or tweezers to remove everything but the uni and then rinse under very gentle water. Use the spoon to delicately remove the pieces. Pick off anything that is not orange and pat dry.
If you're feeling fancy, scrub clean the half urchin shell after delicately removing the pieces. Fill with rice or quinoa and style your uni on top.
Step 10: Fresh Sea Urchin Uni As Sashimi
Serve 'em on rice or alone with some soy sauce and wasabi. I keep my soy sauce in a Buddha Beer bottle with a pour spout on it. (Just FYI.)
Notice the orange liquid that is smooth and not textured. Wipe it away. If wiping it clean doesn't reveal firm and textured flesh underneath, then smell the uni. If it has an unpleasant scent, toss it.
Looking and smelling good? Dig in!