Black, prickly and kinda strange looking – sea urchins don’t immediately strike you as potentially delicious.
But that’s exactly what they are! Yes, you certainly can eat sea urchins and they are delicious either cooked or raw.
There are some tried and tested ways to prepare sea urchin – think sushi or stirred through spaghetti, but you are really only limited by your imagination in discovering ways to eat this tasty form of seafoood.
What Are Sea Urchins?
Sea urchins are small round marine animals with a protective orb of sharp quills that protect them from attack by predators.
Sea urchins are from the same family as sea stars, sand dollars and sea cucumbers.
They are a species traditionally found in shallow water in rocky coastal areas.
Urchins have feet that can protrude from their round inner shell – called a test – that they use to anchor themselves and to move around.
Can You Eat Sea Urchins?
Yes, you can eat sea urchins – and they are damn good. Raw sea urchin is delicious and they are great to cook with too. Sea urchins are a good example of what the Japanese call the umami flavor. Umami, just like sweet, sour, salty and bitter, is one of the five basic tastes. It is most commonly defined as savory, but for me it is easiest to think of foods that have that have a hearty flavor punch: mushrooms, parmesan cheese, miso and peanut butter.
Which Part of the Sea Urchin Do You Eat?
The only parts of the urchin that are edible are the gonads, the reproductive organs that are so highly prized.
You see these when you crack open the urchin’s shell – they are the five orange strips running down the wall of the inside of the shell.
These are a creamy textured concentrated blobs of flavor.
Can You Eat Sea Urchins Raw?
Yes, and served raw is probably the most popular way to eat sea urchin. As someone who lived in Japan for four years, personally I am used to eating sea urchin raw as sushi. It is usually served as so-called gunkan maki or battleship sushi.
It is so named because the chef wraps a strip of nori (dried seaweed in sheet form) around a oval shaped puck of rice. The sheet extends a bit higher than the rice, kind of like the hull of a battleship. The sea urchin (called uni in Japanese) is placed into this cavity until it is filled up.
Urchins are often used as one of many seafood ingredients in chiraishizushi – or sushi donburi. This delicious concoction is just a bowl of sushi rice topped by a mixture of fresh raw fish ingredient including uni. Pour on a dash of soy sauce and wasabi and you have a great meal.
I can still taste the delicious seafood donburi I enjoyed at the seafood markets in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido on fishing trips.
Can You Eat Cooked Sea Urchin?
Yes, but it is rare to cook it like you would a fish. Rather it is used as a paste or flavor additive. For example, it is great stirred through a seafood pasta in the way you’d use parmesan with a meat or vegetable pasta.
I to put some in hot spaghetti finished with olive oil and a scattering of herbs and pangrattato with a little lemon juice.
Some people even use it as a spread on toast or serve it atop a salty potato chip. It is a great ingredient to use in many different ways to provide a burst of concentrated seafood flavor.
Sea urchins are eaten throughout the world including the Mediterranean, but it is Japan and Korea that account for the highest sea urchin consumption.
Are Sea Urchins a Healthy Food?
Yes, sea urchins are considered a healthy food as they are low in calories and high in nutrients. They are a good source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, and iodine. Sea urchins are also rich in antioxidants, which can help protect the body from cellular damage caused by free radicals. Additionally, sea urchins contain anti-inflammatory compounds that may help reduce inflammation in the body.
What Are the Different Types of Sea Urchin?
According to Pangea Seafoods, there are 950 types of sea urchin! But only 18 of these are edible.
The green sea urchins, red sea urchins, and purple sea urchins are the main types used for culinary purposes as their gonads or roe tend to be large and make for a meaningful meal.
The largest producers of urchins these days are Chile (red sea urchin), Canada, Maine (green sea urchin) and the Pacific Coast (west coast) of North America from British Columbia down to California (red and purple sea urchin).
Purple sea urchin is also harvested in Australia and New Zealand, along with Japan and China.
Where to Buy Sea Urchin?
You can buy sea urchin in fish shops in the United States. It is growing in popularity, particular in Pacific states with a large number of citizens of Japanese and Korean origin.
How Can You Catch or Harvest Your Own Sea Urchins?
Yes, you can. Urchins love rock pools and shallow rocky coastal areas. You can harvest them by wading in rockpools in some areas, but more commonly by snorkelling or diving.
Just watch out for the spines – don’t wade in bare feet and protect your hands with gloves when handling them.
To get the roe out, use a pair of scissors to cut away the spines and go in through the hole in the top, cut around and break the shell in two. You can use pliers or a proper urchin-cracking tool for this.
Remember the roe is only edible part of the urchin, so remove it gently and the rest is waste.