Uni (ウニ) [pronounced as ‘oo-nee’, not ‘you-nee’] is the Japanese name for the edible parts of sea urchin. Oftentimes they get mistaken as roes or eggs of sea urchin. In actual fact, the only edible part of sea urchin is its gonads, the fivefold sexual reproductive organs, which produce the milt or roe.
Covered with sharp spines, sea urchins are unique globular sea creatures. Inside the beautiful shell is where the edible pieces are. Depending on the varieties, the gonads range from light yellow to rich orange colors. They look almost like a cow tongue in shape and texture. As exotic as they look, uni or sea urchins are considered culinary delicacies in different parts of the world, especially in the Mediterranean and Japan.
What does uni or sea urchin taste like?
Uni is often described as sweet, briny, slightly slimy with a creamy buttery consistency. I find it hard to really describe its distinctive flavor. Uni does have an acquired taste, so it is either love-or-hate kind of thing for those who try it. Just like foie gras, people who enjoy uni appreciate uni for its curious taste and its rich umami flavor. High-quality uni should not taste at all fishy, instead, the flavor should be light, pleasantly sweet and creamy. Personally, I enjoy uni from Hokkaido for its smooth texture.
Chawanmushi with Uni & Shrimp
How to enjoy uni?
There are many different ways to enjoy uni. Some cultures such as Chileans or New Zealanders eat uni raw. The Italians enjoy uni by adding it to pasta sauces. It is also commonly used to flavor fish soup, béchamel sauce, egg dishes, mayonnaise and so on. In Japanese cuisine, we enjoy uni as nigiri sushi or sashimi. You can also find uni being served in donburi rice bowl style called uni-ikura don or as topping on Chawanmushi.
From raw to steamed to grilled to pan-sear, the possibility of enjoying uni is limitless. Uni is also fantastic when paired with other kinds of seafood such as oyster, squid, shrimp, lobster and so on.
Pasta with Uni (Sea Urchin)
What are the differences between different grades of uni?
The quality of uni is graded based on color, texture, and freshness. The other factors also include the regions (where uni is from), gender, diet, and harvest time. The highest grade of uni comes in vivid orange or gold with the sweetest flavor and firm texture. The lesser grade of uni has a milder color and it is often the ‘leftover’ parts of uni from processing.
In Japan, you can find uni being sold in various forms: fresh (nama uni), frozen (reito uni), steamed (mushi uni), grilled (yaki uni) and so on. It is also available in paste form, which is used primarily for flavoring.
The best time for uni is from late fall to the winter, with December as the prime month to enjoy this unique seafood.
Where to Buy Uni or Sea Urchins
As uni is in high demand around the world, you can expect to pay a high price, especially the highest grade uni. The difficulty to raise and harvest also contributes to the exorbitant prize. In the US, high-quality uni are harvested along the coast of Southern California and the coast of Maine. You can buy them directly from the local fish markets in the areas (Santa Barbara Fish Market) or from online seafood suppliers such as Brown Trading Company. You can also find imported uni being sold at Japanese grocery stores.
Have you tried uni before? What is your take on this unsightly but highly prized delicacy? If you have a chance to visit a Japanese restaurant, definitely give uni sushi or uni sashimi a try.