Why I’m Quitting Uni, New York’s Ingredient of the Moment
Not everyone likes sea urchin, but people who do tend to love it like crazy, like a face with two big hearts for eyes. I know, it’s a gonad, and it can be dank and weird and slightly bitter, but when you eat a good piece, it’s like Poseidon has taken the day off to bake you a cool and freakishly delicious custard. It can smell like a beautiful flower is at bloom in the surf.
In New York, we’ve been eating the stuff fast and hard, high and low—melted into warm rice and strewn across fried rice, crowning so many heaps of spaghetti and bucatini and ramen noodles, lined up on split marrow bones and fried tofu skin, on petals of raw marbled beef , oozing from sandwiches, wrapped in tortillas, glazed in beef tallow, baked into chawanmushi, and pulverized with butter on expensive, diagonally cut pieces of toast.
In the West Village, I heard about an uni-dedicated tasting, built so diners wouldn’t have to go more than a half-hour without a hit. Uni, Japanese for sea urchin, appeared in every course of this menu, from a sauce over white asparagus to a gently smoked lump. This seemed a little excessive to me. And though I’ve loved sea urchin in many ways, by the time it showed up to dinner riding on a pizza, I was starting to feel less like a human and more like a walking uni receptacle. The thing I’d loved? I was sick of it.
If you are experiencing uni fatigue, a good person to call is Dr. Stephen Watts, a Virginia-born scientist who teaches aquatic and marine sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “It’s such a neat animal!” he said, when I asked him why he first chose it as a subject. Watts fell for sea urchin as a diver in his 20s, back when he wasn’t really aware that people ate it, and went on to study uni for the next 30 years.
Urchins grow in water all over the world, including the U.S., but until recently their dinner-table appeal was largely international. Most American fishermen considered urchins kelp-guzzling garbage balls that went around destroying their lobster traps—swiping bait and vacuuming up seaweed with their nasty, highly developed teeth faces. For years, Maine’s urchins were sold only in very small quantities in New York and Boston.
But by the early ’90s, Japan was importing American urchin and paying well for it (its own supply couldn't keep up with demand), encouraging divers and draggers to harvest and sell like never before. California’s previously underappreciated red sea urchins were now being sold at auction at Tokyo’s Tsukiji market. Maine's annual catch jumped from less than a hundred metric tons to well over 12,000 tons in less than a decade.
“Over time, just like with tuna and cod, there were too many people who liked the seafood and not enough of it to go around,” Watts said. He explained that the urchin population around Maine is just 10 percent of what it was at its peak 20 years ago, and that thousands of jobs have vanished. Meanwhile, our appetites for the stuff have grown.
Talk to sea urchin experts like Watts right now, no matter where they are in the world, and it seems like they're all trying to figure out the same thing: What makes an urchin grow big and sweet in the fastest, cheapest, and most ecologically friendly way?
The answer is still unclear, but Watts has been experimenting for years with a commercial feed that could support aquaculture on a large scale—farming urchin has been challenging, but would theoretically take pressure off wild populations. Though his method and feed haven’t been commercialized yet, Watts is optimistic. He says he’s found success culturing the Lytechinus variegatus, or the variegated sea urchin, which comes from Alabama’s warm coastline and matures in only a year.
But the species we eat in New York is not the variegated urchin. It’s usually the short-spined green sea urchin from New England or the dark, longer-spined red sea urchin from California, which take closer to four years to mature into what is essentially a spiky holding cell for delicious, radially symmetrical gonads. That's the stuff we’re after—protein, mostly, with variations of fatty acids according to what the little buggers are eating. The bright, buttery, intact pieces are most valued at market, soaked very briefly in an astringent to clean them off and expel extra water, then packed by grade in a tray like so many yellow and orange tongues.
Watts’s idea of a good time does not involve moving through New York City consuming vast quantities of top-grade sea urchin so much as growing it “egg to egg,” helping the animal survive on a planet that apparently seems hell bent on killing it off. That said, when the professor eats it—and yes, he does eat it occasionally—he does so the very best way I can imagine: He scoops it right out of the shell.
“I used to think food could be good or bad,” Watts said, “but now I know it can be good or great.”
You may feel like a monster when you crack one open—after all, you’re feasting on an animal’s raw gonads right out of its body, with a spoon—but it’s a fine way to eat it, astonishing and intense. Fresh uni tastes of earth and sea, but of something more complicated, too. It’s like the urchin compacts all the strange beauty and noise at the edges of our world into just one bite.
(Finding a fishmonger who carries whole urchins can be a challenge. In NYC, try Greenpoint Fish & Lobster in Brooklyn, which often sells green sea urchin along with the occasional shipment of diver-caught red sea urchin.)
But after hanging up with Watts, I decided I could still use an uni break. And so could the uni. I made a pact to stop ordering it at restaurants for a while and pay closer attention to the less flashy, uni-less dishes. Then in the middle of a sushi omakase the other night, there it was on a lump of rice, seasoned with a little soy sauce, shrouded with crisp nori, pale and shining glamorously under the lights. It was way more than necessary, so much that the nori was unraveling. It had been a while. And it looked good. It looked really good. I figured there was nothing to do but eat quickly, before it came undone.