Spiny, globular, spiky. Those are the first impressions of the outer look of a sea urchin (or uni), this animal crawls slowly through rocks and corals at the ocean bed around the world. Over 900 sea urchin species have been found but only 18 of them are edible.
Doubtful to be seen eaten, sea urchin are considered a delicacy in many cuisines, including Japanese.
Uni (うに ) is a Japanese name for the edible lobes inside the sea urchin. These lobes are actually the gonads which produce the milt or roe of male and female sea urchins. Each sea urchin contains five lobes ranging in color from bright yellow to dark orange with a moist and creamy texture.
There are different perspectives about the taste of uni. They may be an acquired taste to some, but a “love at first sight” to others. Uni is rich, a little bit sweet and has a strong ocean flavor. An interesting fact about sea urchins is their taste can vary based on the freshness, the gender and the region where they were harvested.
Grades of Uni
Uni’s quality is also graded depending on its color, texture and freshness. The highest grade (grade A) has a bright yellow or orange color with a firm texture, fresh ocean scent and a sweet buttery taste. Grade B uni is less sweet, has a more muted yellow and softer texture. Grade C tends to be medium hue of yellow or even brown with nutty taste and can consist of other broken pieces of other grades. Obviously, the higher the grade, the higher the price.
Uni in Japanese Cuisine
Japan accounts for the highest consumption of sea urchins in the world. Sea urchin is a traditional staple in Japanese cuisine and uni is definitely a delicacy that can be retailed for over $450 per kilogram.
With a huge affection for uni, Japanese host many Uni festivals when the local harvest begins. The most common one is Teuri Uni Matsuri on Teuri Island in Hokkaido, where you can watch the locals prepare sea urchins and try fresh uni straight from the shell.
Since Japanese like to have it raw and fresh, uni is commonly served as sashimi or as a topping for nigiri sushi, which can be found within almost every sushi restaurant in Japan. Uni Donburi (rice bowl with uni topping) is another popular way to enjoy this delicious treat. Japanese also top up their rice bowl with uni alongside ikura (salmon roe).
Escape from the Sushi Bar
With the modernization of Japanese cuisines, uni have escaped the confines of sushi bar and gaining popularity around the world, especially in Western countries.
Uni sauce is a major feature that can make a rich companion with various types of pasta, toast or used to flavor scrambled eggs and salad.