Our resident chef finds out what makes uni so popular…and so tasty
Imagine if you could taste the sea in one bite—a net full of fish fresh off the boat, a pot of abalones cooking over a wood fire on the beach after a heavy rain, the sweet perfume of Queen Anne’s lace as you bask under an island beach sun. Imagine if you could wrap all of that sweetness, saltiness, fishiness, and earthiness into one tiny, bite-sized morsel.
Now imagine that the path to this singular flavor experience was lined with hundreds of needlelike spines, a tiny round mouth with beak-like teeth that can cut into stone, and claw-like tentacles writhing among the spines like a Lovecraftian fever dream. Conquer the menacing outer shell of this spiky nightmare orb and you will be rewarded with the most delicious gonads you’ve ever eaten. Yes, gonads. The most perfect bite of seafood ever to rise from the salty brine happens to be gonads, sea urchin gonads to be specific, commonly known as uni.
It may never have occurred to you to eat a sea urchin, and when you see uni presented in a dish you may still wonder what would possess anyone to eat it. When we eat most land and sea animals, we usually go for the muscles, but with sea urchins, it’s the gonads that we’re after. Sometimes referred to as “roe,” which are the eggs of fish and other marine animals, the gonads of a sea urchin are actually the organs that produce the eggs, not the eggs themselves.
Whatever you picture when you think of gonads, uni doesn’t look like that. That is, unless you picture a bright yellow cat tongue when you think of gonads, which is something you may want to take up with a therapist. If you get past the yellow, tongue-like appearance, the next hurdle to experiencing uni ecstasy is the texture.
Despite how it looks, uni should never be mushy. Uni is known for its creamy, buttery texture—like a light, ocean foam custard. It should appear firm and dry, which means it’s fresh and retaining moisture correctly. The aroma should be reminiscent of crisp, early morning ocean mist—clean and airy. If it smells like the concentrated essence of Chickamauga Lake, run far, far away.
Most importantly, great uni will taste sweet, never fishy, with delicate traces of the ocean. It’s like making love to a Neptune while eating fois gras; it’s a creamy aphrodisiac seasoned by the salinity of the ocean. It’s unique and spectacularly flavorful.
Uni is graded on color, texture, and freshness. The highest grade is firm, bright yellow and sweet Grade A. Grade B has a more subdued yellow color, a softer texture and is less sweet, while Grade C, or ‘vana’ uni is just the broken pieces left over after processing and handling. Obviously, the higher the grade, the higher the price, but a tray of really nice grade A uni can be ordered online for $20 to $40.
Still not convinced that eating sweet, tasty urchin nuts is for you? How about if I told you that if you eat enough of them, they can get you high? Uni has a chemical neurotransmitter called anandamide. It’s a “euphoria-causing chemical” ingredient similar to what you find in cannabis! So put down that dab pipe and grab a bucket of urchin bollacks (it will take a bucket of them, however, since the amount of anandamide in uni is very, very small.)
When you decide to take the plunge, there are a couple of ways to try uni in scenic, landlocked Chattanooga. The easiest is to order it at a trusted sushi restaurant. Uni nigiri is a nice entry level uni dish made with toasted nori wrapped vinegared rice and topped with a creamy dollop of unctuous urchin. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, see if they can add a raw quail egg on top. My recommendation is to call a few days in advance and request the freshest uni available for your upcoming meal. I would also avoid chain restaurants and stick with trusted places like Sushi Nabe and Totto.
For the DIY home chef, order some online and have it shipped overnight, then dig around online for a recipe that suits your taste. My favorites are avocado and uni toast with a dash of yuzu or the simple, but flavor-packed spaghetti ai ricci di mare that highlights beautiful uni with lemon, parmesan and garlic. These recipes are easily found online so no excuses! Get out there and eat some urchin. It’s gonadelicious!
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan currently living abroad who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits