From wintry waters, the unsung buttery goodness of Pacific Northwest sea urchin.
Humans are leery, in general, of eating gonads. And that’s what the edible bits of a sea urchin are — though it’s usually called roe, or, more poetically, “coral.”
At their best in the Northwest, the spiny creatures are a delicacy — fluffy, buttery and a golden-orange color that seems stolen from a sunset. If you’ve never eaten it, you’re missing out.
A mouthful or two of its savor, served cool and raw, is enough for most people; the mousselike texture and tropical color would usually signal sweetness, and a little bit of what’s alien goes a long way. Other people might, given their druthers, eat a whole bowlful, like frosting for an oceanic cake.
The reproductive cycle, cued by the slight temperature changes of wintry water, is the reason for its season: December and January are best, because after that, sea urchins spawn. Both males and females make good eating (and despite what some claim, it’s nigh impossible to taste the difference).
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Oysters, of course, follow a similar cycle. They are also arguably ugly, hard to open and texturally challenging, and yet they’ve been romanticized, where urchin is still what’s euphemistically called “an acquired taste.”
When sea urchin is good, it’s very good, but when it’s bad, it’s an abomination. Stored wrong and/or out of the water too long, it acquires the distinctly awful tang of iodine. A single bad bite might put you off it for years, if not forever.
Hajime Sato, of Seattle’s all-sustainable-fish sushi restaurant Mashiko, also faults a preservative that suppliers sometimes apply to the little pillows of uni (as sea urchin’s known in Japanese), the better for shipping. The chemical, he says, imparts a metallic taste.
Both Sato and Shiro Kashiba — who’s just opened his new Sushi Kashiba in Pike Place Market — will tell you that the only uni worth eating is local uni, traveling the shortest possible distance between the ocean floor and your mouth, no preservatives required. If the water is rough, as it was with last week’s storms, you won’t find uni at their sushi bars, because the divers who gather the sea urchins can’t go out.
It was Kashiba who brought me into the uni-loving fold, at his eponymous restaurant in Belltown (it’s still open, but he’s no longer involved). He handed me some uni across the sushi bar, chortling “Chocolate from the sea!” It didn’t look or taste like chocolate at all, and yet he was, ineffably, absolutely right.
For most novices, Kashiba puts sea urchin in a less intimidating hand-roll format. Sato makes what he calls “training wheels” uni, served on top of a fried shiso leaf, “so it’s not that scary.” Or, he confesses, sometimes he’ll “hide it” inside a roll to sneak it into people’s food vocabulary. “Compared to natto” — soybeans fermented to a mucous-like stickiness — “it’s not that bad,” Sato points out.
At Naka on Capitol Hill, the kitchen will make you an off-menu uni shooter — with salmon roe and a raw quail egg, it’s not training-wheels stuff, but it is excellent. Chef Shota Nakajima is also serving a morsel of uni piggybacking on a bite of black cod, scented with a sliver of singed cedar, as part of his prix fixe.
But sea urchin has long been part of cuisines beyond Japanese, and it’s showing up on more and more local menus. Chef Jim Drohman serves it from time to time at Le Pichet; what’s best, he says, is to simply eat the “little roe petals” with a spoon, plus a glass of Champagne or Chablis. His second choice: “just a fresh farm egg, scrambled over simmering water until barely set, finished with a teaspoon of crème fraîche and fresh raw sea urchin.”
At Manolin last winter, they made “a crazy little snack” of sea urchin and avocado cream on a Pringle; right now, there’s grilled pork belly with corona beans and sea-urchin butter. Available at chef Maximillian Petty’s new Eden Hill: house-made spaghetti with creamy sea urchin sauce, topped with a lobe of torched urchin.
At the Willows Inn on Lummi Island, according to chef Blaine Wetzel, their diver friend, Steve, delivers directly to the beach across from the restaurant: “He comes out of the water in full scuba gear with a bag of awesome sea urchin … like a scene right out of a Bond movie.” Canlis serves sea urchin in various formats sometimes, too, as does Single Shot, and the restaurants of Renee Erickson, Maria Hines and Ethan Stowell.
Sea otters serve themselves sea urchins; it’s one of their favorite treats. You can emulate them at home with locally sourced urchin from Uwajimaya or Mutual Fish, sold whole for around $5 or $6 a pound (be sure to call ahead for availability). The yield per creature is only five pieces, but compared to sushi-bar prices, it’s a bargain.
Ken Hewitt, seafood manager at Uwajimaya, mentions that they’ll clean it for you for $2 extra per pound, adding, “It’s well worth it. It really is. Leave the mess here.” Asked for advice for the adventurous home urchin-dismantler, he laughs, “Wear gloves!”
Just last week, sea urchin did a star-ingredient turn on the new season of “Top Chef” — an indicator of popularization if ever there was one. As our hometown contestant Jason Stratton put it on the show, “Who doesn’t like a little gonad?”