Uni, the roe-producing gonad of the sea urchin, is the ugly little princess of the sushi menu. Its appearance, in-shell and out, repels many diners; even loyalists who savor eel and scallop politely decline. Only those willing to look beyond its stippled orange-yellow complexion can experience its beauty, unmasked when it hits the tongue.
Sea urchin has a smooth, creamy texture, and when heated (or eaten) develops a silken, custard-like consistency. It should be kept cold or it will begin to melt around the edges. It’s commonly paired with quail egg, tama in Japanese, typically raw.
The shallow kelp forests of the Pacific Coast from San Diego to Alaska have recently become a leading supplier of uni, most of which is exported to Japan and the rest of Asia. For the plumpest, sweetest and most succulent bites, a Japanese sushi chef would recommend eating American uni between mid-October and February, right before the urchins spawn, which causes a significant decline in the quality of the roe. The Japanese uni harvest picks up in April and dwindles around September.
Once regarded as “urchin bugs,” sea urchins were nearly wiped out by the same California fishermen who now thrive on their cultivation and export. Today, the prized delicacy fetches upward of $80 per pound for the highest California Gold quality. Expect to see prices closer to $10 to $12 per two-ounce tray (about 20 pieces) in Asian supermarkets.
When buying uni, look for a uniformly opaque golden color, about the hue of a farm-fresh egg yolk, with a moist sheen. Check for tiny, raised bumps on the surface — it almost looks like the top layer of a tongue — which indicate a higher egg count and more flavor. Inferior uni appears beige or grayish yellow or has a texture that appears dried out or deflated.
Chefs have expanded uni’s role beyond the sushi platter. Fine dining trends find it blended into light, creamy sauces, and into custards or risotto. But enjoying uni rarely has to involve more than a squeeze of lemon or a dip in soy sauce. Its intense sea flavor pairs well with the citrus and mineral notes of a Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc, though uni’s traditional accompaniment is a smooth, dry warm sake. For a contemporary twist, the uni shooter is a cocktail and hors d’oeuvre in one.
1 tray fresh uni (about 20 pieces)
1 carton quail eggs
1 large bottle dry sake, like Ozeki or Sho Chiku Bai
Tobiko, or other fish roe
Thinly sliced scallions
- Place one or two pieces of uni in the bottom of a shot glass, then pour sake to the halfway point.
- Add ponzu sauce until the glass is nearly full, then drop in about half a teaspoon of roe and several drops of hot sauce.
- Carefully crack the quail egg on top, then garnish with a few sliced scallions.
- Sip, experience the ocean flavor, then shoot, chewing the uni and breaking the egg yolk to release their flavors into the mix.
A note on ponzu: Some of the bottled ponzu is quite acidic and can overpower uni’s sweetness and burn your throat. Invest a few more dollars in a better brand with a lighter flavor. Check for brands such as Otafuku, which is made with yuzu, an aromatic citrus fruit that has mildly tart grapefruit and mandarin overtones and less acid than kabosu or sudachi, other Japanese citruses with stronger lemon and lime flavors also used in making ponzu.