This picture we took at our favorite San Francisco sushi bar last weekend has inspired me to sing the praises of uni. The word is Japanese for the coral “roe” (actually the gonads) of a sea urchin – oursin in French, riccio in Italian, erizo in Spanish, all meaning hedgehog. I don’t volunteer this information to show off my language skills, but if you’re as passionate about uni as we are, you need to know it in many languages so you don’t miss it on your travels.
It’s one of those things like anchovies and oysters that people either love or hate. Count us among the lovers. Probably the best we ever had was in a coastal restaurant north of Valparaiso in Chile. Good luck brought us there at the height of the season. There were huge mounds on offer, each one bigger than a softball – hefty, luscious, and cheap!
We eat them regularly in France, where they are in season during the cold months, but we’ve had them as far apart as Seville and Sicily at other times of the year. Our enthusiasm has led us to buy them several times at the market with less than stellar results in their preparation. Better, we’ve decided, to have them at a restaurant. In recent years uni has spread beyond the sushi bar into sauces, often for pasta, in trendy restaurants worldwide. Here in San Francisco, most come up from southern California, removed from the shell, cleaned and packed in little Japanese-style wooden trays. Occasionally, we get them as you see here – in their spiky shells live and fresh from Mendicino. How to describe the flavor? Briny, sweet, buttery, rich. You think maybe this is the fois gras of the sea. We like it best in a sushi handroll called a bakudan – rice, shisho leaf, ikura (salmon eggs) and hopefully a lot of uni. Divine!
My first encounter with a sea urchin was many years ago when I spent a summer on the Greek island of Spetsos. I had been swimming and sat on a rock in the water and inadvertently on a sea urchin that was clinging to it. Several of its spines pierced through my swimsuit, broke off and lodged in my bottom. They are impossible to remove. So they stayed with me, a very uncomfortable human pincushion, until they emerged one by one weeks later. In view of this, I suppose it’s surprising that I am so fond of these hazardous little critters but when it comes to the pleasures of eating, it’s easy to be forgiving.
So next time you’re at a sushi bar, try some uni. You’ll either love it or hate it.