They involve diving into the Mediterranean Sea in Greece for spiny, and potentially pain-inflicting, sea creatures — which I would deliver to my anxiously awaiting kin, who would then slurp their reproductive organs and pressure me to do the same. All while coaxing me with a large cold glass of ouzo liquor. I was eight years old.
I am, of course, talking about sea urchins, a prized and pricy delicacy in many areas around the globe. Sea urchin, or uni as it is commonly known by its Japanese name, can be consumed in a variety of presentations, including as part of a sushi meal and as a flavorful addition to pasta dishes. There is no better way to enjoy the buttery flavor and (pleasantly) slimy texture of uni, however, than right out of its shell.
Should you ever find yourself near the Mediterranean Sea — with an appetite for adventure and a curious palate — here are some tips for diving for sea urchins, and how to enjoy your freshly caught meal.
With uni, there is no uniform
There are over 700 known species of sea urchin worldwide. The two most common types in the Mediterranean are Paracentrotus lividus and Arbacia lixula. Yeah, it’s all Greek to me too.
It’s easier than you think
While sea urchins are able to move slowly on hard surfaces, due to their rows of tiny tube feet, they attach themselves to rocks. When diving, stick to rocky coastal areas, as some can be found in less than 15 feet of water. Always bring a sharp knife to help you extract them from their resting place, but a pair of gloves and a gentle pull off the rock can usually get the job done. Apart from that, all you need is a mask, snorkel and flippers.
Look for animals with a plus-one
A little secret to identifying sea urchins in the Mediterranean: The only ones that are edible will have a small piece of seaweed, a shell, or a rock attached to the top of them. They will also never be pitch black in color: look for slight shades of red, green or purple.
The big bad sea urchin? Not so much.
Despite common misconceptions, sea urchins are not dangerous. Even though their spines can inflict a painful wound when they puncture skin, this injury occurs only when the urchins are stepped on accidentally, or handled without care.
The greatest uni invention ever
After you detach a sea urchin from a rock, you will want a place to hold it as you dive for more. Plastic bags present a problem, as you will have to constantly hold on to them as you dive, and take extra care to not brush up against the protruding spines of the captured critters. The ultimate insider’s tip: take a large plastic bucket and tie a thick piece of rope to it. Attach the other end of rope to a buoy, and then place a couple of weights (or something heavy) in the bucket. The bucket will remain underwater, preserving the freshness of the captured creatures, while you can keep track of the its location as the buoy bobs overwater.
Okay, maybe this is actually the best invention ever…
Trying to open your freshly caught loot with knives, scissors, or any other contraption will only result in disappointment and possible injury. Shell out a few bucks and buy a sea urchin–opening device. Pretty cool, huh?
Go for the gonads
The urchin’s umm, gonads, are its only edible part. There should be a fivefold symmetry of gonads inside – gently shake the opened sea urchin in the sea water (this will release inedible parts like the guts), take a spoon, and scoop out the remaining orange-ish insides. Gonads never tasted so good!
Hesitant? Add liquor.
Uni can be paired with a variety of spirits, most notably wine or sake in Japanese restaurants. Try it with the Greek aperitif ouzo — the liquorice-like taste perfectly complements the delicate flavor of the urchin. Feeling extra Greek? Pour a small amount of ouzo directly into the half-shell of uni and scoop it up simultaneously with the gonads.
You can enjoy sea urchins without eating them
Don’t like the taste of uni? No problem. You wouldn’t know it at first glance, but a sea urchin’s spines cover up a beautiful shell. After the animal dies and decomposes, it leaves behind a delicate casing in eye-striking shades of red, green, blue or purple. These shells lay peacefully and untouched on the sea’s bottom.
By George Embiricos