Growing up in New Zealand, I was exposed to the sea urchin (and huge eels) at an early age and ate them many times over the years. We called them kina which is the traditional Maori name for this delicacy. Any seafood that we didn’t gulp down straight from the shell were usually fried up in fritters. They never lasted until the next day!
Sea urchins can be found in oceans all over the world, and with their ominous spines, you could consider them the porcupines of the sea. Although they look a decent size, their insides only contain a small amount of edible roe and organs. The Japanese popularized this ingredient (aka uni), using it in a variety of popular recipes including ceviche and nigiri. If you’d like to know what sea urchin tastes like then keep reading as we reveal its flavor, texture, aroma, and uses in the kitchen.
Describing the taste of sea urchin
The sea urchin has a delicate combination of sweet and briny flavor with an unmissable umami undertone. Although the flavor is unique, there is a familiar “taste of the sea”, like a mild version of caviar or oysters. Its texture is considered the best part of the seafood, with a custardy, creamy mouthfeel that is also buttery, like foie gras or the "eggy" part of balut.
Factors that affect the sea urchin’s flavor
It is essential to eat fresh uni if you want to experience the best tasting seafood. First-timers should find a reputable seafood market or restaurant that specializes in this fare. Older sea urchin has a very unpleasant bitter, metallic taste with an ammonia-like aroma and slimy texture.
Location can also have an impact on the sea urchin’s flavor, mostly due to the diverse food sources that they feed on in different regions. Different parts of the world also have distinct varieties. For example, on the West Coast of the United States, sea urchin is well known for its thick and rich texture; it is noticeably milder and more delicate than other parts of the country. On the East Coast, it has a stronger brine flavor and the texture is firmer. Its color is a much brighter yellow than on the West Coast.
Adding other ingredients to the seafood will impact the flavor. Its natural taste will be enhanced by acidity from a squeeze of lemon, lime, or yuzu. Other mild seafood, fish, and summer vegetables are all great options for pairing with sea urchins.
Culinary uses for sea urchin
- Uni is delicious eaten at a fish market, fresh out the sea, with no accompanying ingredients. Ask the fishmonger to crack open the shell and clean it so that the brown sludge doesn’t find its way onto your tasty morsel.
- The French serve the seafood with crusty bread and butter. Other favorite options are to include them in a seafood bisque to enhance the silky texture of the dish; or add them to souffles and omelets.
- Popular ways to eat it in Japan is added to a steamed egg custard (chawanmushi) or on top of seasoned rice (nigiri sushi).
- In Italian cuisine, the sea urchin is tossed into spaghetti with butter and a squeeze of lemon (ricci di mare).
- As mentioned above, New Zealanders love their kina, and they enjoy it raw, cooked in a pie, or pan-fried as a fritter.
The best way to store sea urchins is to refrigerate in an airtight container for 5-7 days. However, its flavor and texture quickly degrade, even once it’s a day old. Never freeze sea urchin because the texture will become mushy and unpleasant once thawed.
- Eat the sea urchin fresh, preferably still alive and squirming with the spines moving, for the best eating experience.
- The orange-colored smooth segment of the sea urchin is the gonads, and this is the best part to eat.
- There are over 800 species of sea urchin, which partially explains why you’ll hear different descriptions of what they taste like.
- The most dangerous type is the flower urchin which can cause clumping of the red blood cells, spasms, anaphylactic shock, and even death.
- Animals such as lobsters, crabs, sea otters, triggerfish, and wolf eels love to feast on sea urchins.
The first time you encounter sea urchin you may feel a little squirmish at the thought of eating an animal's internal organs. But don’t let looks stop you – this is actually one of those foods that is really good. The flavor is milder than most fish, although people always say they can tell it’s from the sea. But it is the texture, which is creamy and custard-like, that make this food a winner.
Remember to try sea urchin for the first time at a reputable seafood restaurant to get the best experience. Of course, if you’re able to collect a bag straight from the ocean then that would be best; unfortunately, it has become much harder to source them this way than when I was a child!
What is the best seafood you have ever tasted? Let us know in the comments below.