Last week I woke up with a crazed, urgent need for uni. In the subsequent days I learned that there is some confusion about what exactly uni is, so let’s clear that up straightaway. Uni is the Japanese word for the part of the sea urchin known as the gonads, often mistaken for roe because it looks a lot like tiny pearls of caviar.
The uni itself tends to be vibrant orange, but there are hundreds of varieties of sea urchins that span the color spectrum. Sea urchins native to the Pacific Northwest tend to be brown or purple and their spines are roughly 3” long, however some tropical sea urchins can have very sharp spines up to 12”. They are compelling little creatures and I could give you a hundred intriguing facts about them but I’ll limit myself to just a few:
- Around the world, the gonads are most commonly referred to as “corals,” probably because the idea of eating gonads is not nearly as romantic as eating corals.
- The term “urchin” is Middle English for “hedgehog,” and some cultures refer to sea urchins as sea hedgehogs instead.
- In Maine, sea urchins are known as “whores’ eggs.” I can only imagine why.
- In the Orkney Islands, uni was formerly a delicacy used in place of butter.
I had big plans for the amber gonads and I combed several local Asian markets to no avail. Over the course of my four-day urchin hunt I had time to perfect my plan of serving the uni as a Chantilly cream, filling the void inside a squid ink-dyed cornet. Each day I called around, and each day I was told to check back soon. I did not fret, because in the back of my mind I knew I was alighting on a two-day culinary adventure through Richmond, BC- a city known for its abundant Asian cuisine. The press junket, put on by Tourism Richmond, included a stop at one of the finest Asian grocers on the west coast- Osaka Supermarket, where I was certain to find uni.
As our group zagged through the store amid a thick murder of black-clad, purposeful shoppers, I was awed by whole turtles, bumbling abalones, live conch, and a barely tank-contained king crab straight out of Jaws, but sadly, no sea urchins. It was all I could do to hold up my head and soak my woes in a scandalous amount of wine in order to act convivial through a Cantonese dim sum dinner at Jade Seafood Restaurant. Not even the crisp, pure flavor of their fish maw with crabmeat soup was enough to thoroughly extract me from my urchin funk, but it came close.
We had visited the Tibetan Thrangu Monastery earlier that day and the hot, (yes, really) tech-literate monk who acted as our guide invited me to come back for an extended meditation of up to two years. At this point I fastidiously contemplated it, thinking enlightenment might result in a heaven full of sea urchins. As the night devolved into a game of pool so ill-timed I had to close one eye just to keep the balls from melting into the felted table, I realized the monastic (nunnastic?) life was not for me.
The next morning I shelved my uni vision and concentrated on not oozing liquor out every pore in the tiny confines of the limo that ferried us across Richmond’s dikes and dim sum to the disarmingly-charming fishing village of Steveston.
There is a lot going on in this tiny little town, much of which you can read about in my article for Seattleite Magazine, but I came upon the panacea for all life’s ills as I rounded the corner to the fishing docks and saw this boat:
In the clever way that fate twists life, I would find my preciousss sea urchins just at the moment when I had shed all hope. Those Tibetan Buddhists really know a thing or two about the workings of the world. If only I could part with my shoe collection… I prostrated myself in front of the sea urchin fisherman in a display of appreciation so awkward he must have thought I intended to use them as some kind of rare, wildly-expensive sexual elixir. He calmed me with a taste of live uni straight off his fist and sent me packing with three spiny urchins in search of a cooler.
We christened them Larry, Moe and Curly and straightaway began planning Operation Urchin, aka get urchins across the border without attracting attention. I am uncertain as to whether live urchins are on some kind of border detainee list, however I reasoned that in the ocean they don’t likely stick to the Canada side, so why not vacillate on land as well? I will spare you the scandalous details of exactly how the urchins came to their final resting cell in my refrigerator late that night because I remain dubious as to the exact nature of the legalities surrounding urchin-smuggling. Let’s just say that in the limo ride all of us ne-er-do-well writers practiced saying “These are not the urchins you’re looking for” with very, very straight faces.
It brought to mind a certain incident that occurred during my “gap year” that is, the year I (and many youth from countries besides the US) took between high school and college. I had legally-purchased- just like my urchins- some high-grade marijuana from a tea shop in Amsterdam and I was headed to England by plane for the Glastonbury Festival. Not wanting to toss it in a Dutch dyke, I opted to make use of a tampon applicator which I summarily shoved where you’d imagine. This is where the story diverges from that of the sea urchin. While the flight from Amsterdam to London was extremely uncomfortable, had I attempted the same feat with a sea urchin I would have neither a child, nor a semblance of a sex life today. A lot can happen in a decade. I no longer make use of recreational substances but I have turned recreational eating into a professional manifesto.
Because of the two days and two countries Larry, Moe, Curly and I had spent together, we had grown quite close. When the time came to take the sheets of nori- yes, they eat seaweed, so I gave them some nori to munch in the fridge as their last meal- away from the urchin trio and don a pair of spine-proof gloves, I grew a little melancholy. This is how it should be. Food tastes that much better if every once in awhile we get a little blood on our hands as we help with its journey from sea to Chantilly. I turned on “American Pie” and belted a few refrains to give me the courage to cut around the perimeter of the urchin’s mouths with a pair of kitchen shears. I recommend doing this outside as the smell of partially-digested seaweed is enough to give even a garbage man pause. The moment the shears pierced the exoskeleton, the urchin’s mouth brusquely collapsed. I was left with fresh death in my hands.
I wasn’t sad for too long though, because scraping the five gonads from inside each of the urchins put the thought of sweet and briny uni into my head. I carefully rinsed the gonads and put them through a sieve to make a bright mango paste. I combined the uni paste with as little cream as possible resulting in Chantilly that whispered of the sea with an undertow of hazelnuts. I filled squid ink cornets I had made earlier that day with the uni Chantilly and balanced a smatter of wasabi-tinged roe on top of the cream to add sharpness in flavor and a third texture to the mini-cones. The cornets themselves tasted saline from the squid ink and contrasted with the creamy, full-bodied uni Chantilly. The oily heat of the wasabi roe coupled with its pop rocks-like quality heightened the textural interest of each bite.
I have always appreciated food, but my appreciation grows the more I have to work for it. The same goes for flavor. The more intimate I become with the process of bringing something to the table, the more I notice nuances of taste. The process can be simple like growing a raspberry, plucking and eating it fresh off the vine, or complex like butchering an animal, dressing it, and cooking all its parts. I transformed the uni into something beyond itself but because I literally held its carnal knowledge, I could do so with a deft, gentle hand. This is one for the books.
Sea Urchin Chantilly in Squid Ink Cornets
Makes 20 cornets, takes 1.5 hours- make the uni Chantilly then let it cool as you make the cornets
- 3 oz uni
- ¾ c heavy whipping cream
- ¼ c confectioner’s sugar
- 1” piece of ginger, chopped into 5 pieces
- 2 sheets leaf gelatin
- If the uni is unprepared, rinse it thoroughly and drain. Press it through a sieve and reserve.
- Bring the cream, sugar and ginger to a simmer, cover, remove from heat and steep for five minutes. Meanwhile, hydrate the gelatin in a cup of water until pliable. Pour the cream through a strainer into the uni puree and add the leaf gelatin (not the water from the leaf gelatin, however). Whisk the mixture until uniform and put into a cream whipper. Charge with two NO2 cartridges and chill completely in an ice bath. Alternatively, you can whip the mixture into thick cream with hand beaters if you don’t have a cream whipper, but wait until it is chilled to do so.
Squid Ink Cornets
- 1/4 cup plus 3 tbsps all purpose flour
- 1 tbsp plus 1 tsp sugar
- 3/4 tsp squid ink (if you like the flavor of squid ink, use more)
- 8 tbsps (4 oz) unsalted butter, softened but still cool to the touch
- 2 large egg whites, cold (I use 1 duck and 1 chicken)
- ¼ c black sesame seeds
- Preheat oven to 400°F.
- Mix the flour and sugar in a small bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk the squid ink into the unsalted butter until it is completely uniform. Add the egg whites to the flour mixture and whisk until incorporated. In thirds, add the butter/squid mixture to the flour and fully combine each time.
- Once your batter is homogenous, line a sheet pan with a silpat and place a 4” circular stencil on top. Using an offset spatula, spread batter into the stencil area in an even layer.
- I like to make two per batch in the oven because I feel that more makes it difficult to wrap the rounds around the cornet molds, but you should gauge your own level of ambition.
- Put the baking sheets with cornet rounds in the oven and watch them closely. This part is not so much formulaic as dependent on your equipment and altitude. I tend to leave them in for about two minutes, just until they’ve cooked enough to not rip. Then, working with a cornet mold and a small spatula, pull the sheetpan onto the oven door, flip each cornet round, and roll them around the cornet molds. You will need fingers of steel for this, and even so, you will probably burn yourself. That’s ok though, just look at it as battle wounds to be proud of.
- Once the cornets are rolled, put them back into the oven for an additional 3-4 minutes, or until hardened. Cornets are not the easiest things to make, you may need to make 3 or 4 until you get into your groove, but don’t give up, they are fun, worth it, and way easier once you’ve got it down.
- Remove the finished cornets from the oven and roll them in a bed of black sesame seeds before slipping them off their molds to dry on a cooling rack.
To Assemble the Uni Cornets:
- Tobiko (I use wasabi-flavored for the color and flavor contrast)
- Uni Chantilly Cream
- Squid Ink Cornets
- Fill each cornet with Chantilly cream and use tweezers or a careful hand to dollop tobiko on top. If you don’t have a cornet-serving dish, you can fill a shallow pan with rice or coarse salt and nestle the cornets into the salt to keep them upright until people take them.