When you think of seafood, you might not instantly think about sea urchins. Often, when asked about which seafoods they would like to taste, people may respond with things like shrimp, swordfish, or perhaps octopus. While sea urchins may not be at the forefront of our minds when it comes to food, they offer a unique alternative to other types of ocean produce and have a very distinctive flavour.
What Are Sea Urchins?
Sea urchins are small animals that are round and spiny. They live in every ocean across the world and typically inhabit the seabed. What’s most fascinating about these small creatures is that while they can thrive in shallow waters, there are some species that do just as well in deeper waters up to 5000 metres!
In terms of being food for humans, the sea urchin didn’t become popular until after the second world war when fishermen in Japan began sourcing these animals. Over the years, other countries got in on the action and began fishing for sea urchins, with the USA selling much of its haul to Japan. The sea urchin trade reached a spike in the early 90s but has been in decline ever since due to the sea urchin being drastically over-fished.
What Do Sea Urchins Taste Like?
With its spiny body, you could be forgiven for thinking that sea urchins wouldn’t be edible but it is what is on the inside that counts. The sea urchin is filled with a very unique tasting meat that also has a strange texture. For people who are not used to eating this food, it can be a little odd on the first go.
You’ll often see the sea urchin featured on a tasting menu and in Japan it is considered to be a delicacy. Here, people eat it as an aphrodisiac which isn’t hugley surprising when you think about the other ocean creatures such as the oyster that are thought to have similar effects. The Japanese refer to this food as ‘uni.’
Sea urchins have a very creamy texture that is rich and almost buttery. Their taste is briny but not so salty that it is unpalatable. In fact, when they are at their freshest, the sea urchin will have quite a sweet taste to it that is complemented by that ‘ocean’ flavour that appeals to so many seafood lovers.
Furthermore, their texture may alter over the year. This is because the edible part of the sea urchin is its reproductive organs and as roe develop inside, the meat becomes a little firmer towards spawning season.
What Do Sea Urchins Smell Like?
Much like their taste, sea urchins have a very oceanic aroma that smacks of salt air, brine and is considerably earthy. However, the smell of sea urchins can vary dramatically depending on which part of the world they were harvested. Furthermore, if you are not a fan of sea urchin, it is likely that you might compare their aroma to that of a diaper. Phew!
In contrast, those who have a penchant for this adventurous food describe it as having a sweet and fresh aroma. It’s all about personal taste.
One thing you should keep in mind is that, whether you love them or hate them, sea urchins can go bad and when this happens, they should be thrown out and never eaten!
How Can You Tell If Sea Urchins Are Bad?
One of the first signs that a sea urchin is no longer fit for eating is if it begins to smell off. It is pretty easy to determine when seafood has gone bad because the meat will smell rancid pretty quickly. Even as it begins to deteriorate, it may develop a bitter aroma.
If you are unfortunate enough to eat a bad sea urchin, this could have serious consequences and may result in mild to severe food poisoning. However, the initial taste of the sea urchin should give you a good idea as to its quality.
When they have gone bad, the sea urchins may have a taste that resembles iodine and taste very bitter. Furthermore, the texture of bad sea urchin changes from creamy to slimy.
What Do You Do With Sea Urchins?
Since sea urchins are most commonly eaten in Japan, that leaves a large part of the global population unfamiliar with what to do with them. However, the good news is that this is a rather versatile food.
In many cases, sea urchin features heavily in sushi dishes. While this is a very viable option, there are other things that you can do with it. Sea urchin is often used in sauces or even spread on other foods in a similar way to butter. Some people like to mix it into rice or pasta dishes to give them a new flavour and make them more substantial.
What Part Of The Sea Urchin Do You Eat?
As we have discovered, sea urchins have spiny bodies and these are used as a form of defence against predators. The sea urchin has a lot of predators, and when food is in short supply, they won’t think twice about preying on each other!
Furthermore, there are some varieties of sea urchins whose spines contain venom, and of course, no human is going to want to eat that. It’s good then, that when chefs prepare sea urchins, they take the insides of the animal. These are orangey-yellow in colour and what may be most surprising is that the only edible insides are the gonads, or the reproductive organs. But don’t let this put your off; sea urchin has a unique and unforgettable taste that is truly an experience all of its own.
Sea urchins are considered to be a delicacy in Japan, where they were first fished at the end of World War II. These small sea animals contain a bright-coloured meat that has a very distinct texture and flavour. They are definitely something that you either love or hate and have a diverse range of uses in cuisine.