The first time I had sea urchin (uni,) I gagged and spat it out. The texture and the taste of the sea were way too much for me. And then one day, I was flipping through my Nobu cookbook and came across his recipe on tempura sea urchin. In the comments section, he mentioned that he got a lot of people who had refused sea urchin in the past to try the tempura and they ended up loving it.
I felt a pang of remorse because the delicate little slivers of buttery orange urchin roe looked delectable and the praises that sea urchin lovers sang sounded wonderful. Why didn't I like this? I like so many other things, why not this? They're not just eaten in sushi; many other ocean-faring cultures eat them. They're found in Mediterranean cuisines and also eaten in Chile and the Orkney Islands. I saw hundreds of these animals while snorkeling in the Caribbean. But that initial bad experience I had in eating them caused me to steer clear from having them on my plate.
And then I found a restaurant in San Francisco that served the tempura sea urchin, so I ordered some. The urchin roe was gently sandwiched between two shiso leaves, dipped in tempura batter, and deep-fried. I took a bite, crunching through the lacy fried batter and my tongue met a delicate and salty, yet umami-like flavor. I was a convert. I started asking for uni nigiri when I ate at sushi bars, trying to train myself to like it. I accepted bowls of chirashi with uni in them, mixing the creamy orange roe into the rice. It took a couple of tries, but I finally learned to get past the texture.
I don't buy it in Japanese markets because they sell it packaged in a tray of about 15 to 20 urchin roes, which is way too much for me, and they'd end up going to waste. I like uni in small amounts - I can't eat a lot of it. I'm content at the moment to buy one whole urchin fresh out of the ocean at the San Rafael Farmer's Market, where they crack the shell for me and scoop out the roe for me to take home. But if you love uni, then by all means get a large tray of sushi-quality uni at your local Asian grocer. But eat them quickly; they are highly perishable and only good for one or two days.
If you have access to whole live sea urchins, here's a tutorial on how to open your own. Beware of the sharp spikes!
Some sea urchin recipes to try:
Sea urchin bruschetta - Bobby Flay
Baked sea urchin with sea urchin butter
Sea urchin chowder
Sea urchin tempura - Nobu's recipe
Spaghetti and sea urchin - a popular Italian recipe. Sea urchin is called "ricci di mare" in Italian.
(Image: Kathryn Hill)