- According to Robert Ortiz, head chef at Lima London, sea urchin is full of protein and minerals, including zinc, which means it is considered an aphrodisiac in the food world
- The edible part of the sea urchin is often referred to as the roe or lobes, but it is actually the animal's gonads (aka reproductive glands)
- The heavier the sea urchin feels in its shell, the fresher it is. Shells fill with seawater when in the sea, but once they have been removed, the water gradually escapes through holes, leaving the creature inside to deteriorate
While it has been enjoyed by foodies over the world for many years, it is fair to say that the sea urchin is having a bit of a moment right now.
Currently starring in over 300,000 posts on Instagram, this spiky, spherical shellfish not only helps turn dishes into works of art, but the edible part is also a powerhouse in the flavour stakes.
As Adam Byatt, chef-owner of Clapham's Trinity restaurant, says, this umami-rich and creamy seafood has an “enormous impact” when used in dishes. “Pound for pound, a tiny bit of sea urchin brings so much flavour. It lingers a lot longer than other shellfish, like a great wine would,” he says.
Found in oceans around the globe, sea urchin is used in different styles of global cuisine, with many regions serving it raw.
In Japan, sea urchin, known as 'uni,' is used as or within sashimi or sushi. The Greeks enjoy it uncooked too: Athinagoras Kostakos, chef-patron of Meraki Restaurant in London, dubs it the “caviar of Greece”; he serves it simply with fresh lemon and olive oil.
But it is the Italians – more specifically the Sardinians – who like to be most creative with sea urchin, adding them to pasta sauces and risottos or using them to top pizza, which Mauro Sanna of pizza and pasta restaurant Oliveto in London does to the delight of his customers.
Over in California, the sea speciality has been popping up at some of the buzziest new restaurants, including Rajat Parr’s Bibi Ji – where it’s served in an uni biryani – and NoMad LA, which dishes it up marinated with avocado.
Adam Byatt, chef-owner of Trinity in London, serves sea urchin with Cornish brill baked on the bone: “We take the sea urchins from their shells, melt salted butter, then drop the sea urchins in and let them steep a bit before setting the butter. We then whip the butter until it's super-aerated and chill. The brill is then covered in the butter and baked in the oven at about 160°C, so that the fish almost poaches in the butter. When it comes to serve it, we take the fish off the bone, pour the butter and cooking juices from the fish into a pan with a little bit of fish stock and a tiny bit of crème fraiche, whizz it up and that's it. The sauce then goes on top of the fish with the pickled sea vegetables – cucumber, dulse and samphire. We add a couple of fresh sea urchin to the plate and finish the whole dish with lovage oil, which is quite earthy and floral. Sea urchin is super-umami, creamy and rich, so you need something with a bit of perfume to just cut into it.”
Gonzalo Luzarraga, chef-patron of Rigo London, features sea urchin in a bagna cauda with a quail egg and fermented milk: “I use sea urchin from Galicia for this dish. To make it, I open the sea urchin, preserving the water that is inside, then take out the roe. I clean the shell and pour in some fermented milk – it's made like kefir and strained, so it's not too liquid. To the fermented milk, I add a poached quail's egg. Then, I make a bagna cauda with garlic, anchovies and cream and heat the sauce, before adding it to the shell with the sea urchin. Depending on the season I will top it with a bitter flower – currently cime di rapa flowers. Sea urchin has such a strong taste that you need to balance it out with other flavours. In this dish you also have the egg, which is creamy, and the fermented milk, so you have this nice equilibrium.”
Mauro Sanna, managing director of Olivo and Oliveto, uses sea urchins in four different dishes at his restaurants Olivo, Olivomare, Oliveto and Olivocarne. Here, he describes lorighittas al ricci di mare from Olivomare: “Lorighittas is a traditional Sardinian handmade pasta which we serve with fresh sea urchins. To make the dish, the lorighittas pasta is sauteed in the pan with some artichoke pieces, a little white wine, garlic and a pinch of chilli. Then, the pan is removed from the heat and the sea urchins are mixed in with the spaghetti so they are just very lightly cooked by the pasta’s heat. The flavour of sea urchin is unique and adds so much to a dish. Having grown up in Sardinia, sea urchin has been an important part of my diet since childhood, and I have actively encouraged our clientele to try them. They are a popular part of our menus”