Belonging to the echinoderm family and related to both sea cucumbers and starfish, these round, spiny marine invertebrates are found in seas around the world. There are more than 800 varieties, ranging in size from 2.5cm to 30cm-plus, and also in colour – most commonly black, green, red or purple. The shell, known as the ‘test’, is made up of fused plates with an opening for the mouth at the bottom, and it is covered in spines which can be quite long and sharp in many species.
Although the edible parts of the sea urchin are referred to as ‘roe’ or corals, these are in fact its reproductive organs. In regular varieties of sea urchin – regardless of whether it is a male or female – they usually take the form of five long, tongue-shaped glands. They range in colour from light yellow to dark golden, and are attached to the wall of the test.
The rich taste and creamy texture is what makes the roe so sought after. It is a heady combination of being sweet and buttery, but also slightly briny and metallic.
Throughout coastal regions in the Mediterranean, it is commonly eaten raw with lemon, but is also used as a garnish and to flavour sauces, soups and dishes. In Italy, where it is known as riccio di mare, it is often added to pastas and risottos (see recipe right), while in France, it is used to flavour soufflés, omelettes and seafood-based dishes; and to make sauces, including the thick Provençal sauce oursinade. In New Zealand, kina – as it is known in Maori – is also commonly eaten raw. However, the cuisine in which this delicacy is arguably most popular is Japanese. Known as uni, it is primarily served as sashimi or sushi, and is graded based on colour, texture and freshness. In Japanese culture, sea urchin is also believed to be an aphrodisiac.
Sea urchins should be purchased live, and eaten as soon as possible – a simple way to tell if they are fresh is to check the mouth, which should be closed. Their spines can cause painful wounds, so avoid touching these.
While there are special tools to open sea urchins, we’ve found the simplest method is to insert the tip of the bowl part of two spoons back to back into the mouth, so that the bowls of the spoons face outward. Pull the handles of the spoons together, which will act as a lever to crack the test open.
Regardless of which approach you take, it’s a good idea to lay a tea towel over your work surface to soak up the water stored inside the shell. Then, it’s simply a matter of spooning out the roe, rinsing it in salted water, and laying it flat on paper towel to absorb the excess water.
If you’re not up to the task, pre-prepared sea urchin roe is readily available from selected delis, and some online suppliers will deliver around the country.
For more information, visit sea-urchins.com.au.
Photography Chris Chen