To an American, the name Santa Barbara may prompt images of leisure on a soap opera scale. Someone from Japan may be more likely to think of uni. That’s right, sea urchin roe. It may come as a surprise to most local residents, but some of the most highly sought after uni in the world is harvested right off of their coast.
Stand on Stearns Wharf and in the distance you can see the dim outline of the northern Channel Islands: San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and Anacapa. That’s where the sea urchins come from.
At the mammoth Tsukiji fish market just outside of Tokyo, this Santa Barbara uni regularly brings among the highest auction prices, second only to the rare white roe from Japan’s Hokkaido Island.
These aren’t the little purple sea urchins familiar to tide-poolers (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus), but the rarer red sea urchins (S. franciscanus).
They are found in deeper waters -- from 30 to 90 feet -- around the forests of kelp that they feed on.
Sea urchins look like anything but a delicacy; they are covered with a spiny shell. But inside every urchin are five pieces of roe. Soft almost to the point of trembling, these melt on the tongue, releasing a vivid blast of pure ocean flavor. These are what are prized by sushi lovers.
The urchins from the ocean around the islands off of Santa Barbara are hand harvested by divers, then loaded onto boats and brought to the mainland for processing.
Much of the best goes to Hashimoto Sea Bridge, a mom-and-pop operation run by Kan and Chieko Hashimoto in an industrial park in Ventura.
From the boats, they are trucked directly to the Hashimotos in large plastic bins the size of playpens. A crew of eight workers does all the processing. One at a time the shells are opened with a tool that looks something like a strange piece of gardening equipment -- a hand spade with a pair of sharp triangular blades that opens when squeezed.
The point is popped into the center of an urchin, breaking the shell. Then the blades separate the halves, exposing the delicate roe without damaging it. The air is thick with the smell of the sea.
The roe is carefully separated from the shell and placed in perforated plastic trays. It is so soft that careless handling won’t bruise it so much as smash it entirely. These trays are then dipped in salt water, where each roe is repeatedly washed by hand to remove any extra material.
At this point, it is difficult to tell one roe from another. It’s not until after they’ve been soaked for a couple of hours in a solution of salt water and anhydrous potassium alum for firming that their colors begin to emerge.
The right hue
Color is vital to the grading of uni. At this point in the season, as much as half of the roe has a dark, grayish cast. These are immediately discarded; they’ll be so bitter they can’t be sold (in the fall, at the peak of the season, there will be much fewer of these). The good roe ranges in color from dark yellow to pumpkin-y orange. Kan Hashimoto prefers the latter, saying that the lighter uni has less flavor.
The roe that passes the first cut will get a much closer inspection. Hashimoto says he looks for a series of things: Good uni resembles a kitten’s tongue, plump and beady with papillae.
The shape is well defined and it is firm, with no moisture showing on top. Hashimoto says good roe has a brightness to it.
Just three of his crew are trusted with the difficult job of grading the uni. They sort quickly as they carefully arrange the roe with a tiny spoon in overlapping rows on wooden trays.
Hashimoto sells only two grades: A and B. Most of us have only tasted B uni. Almost all of the Grade A uni is shipped overnight to Japan, where it draws the highest price from the most demanding customers. Hashimoto proudly shows a feature on a master sushi chef in a Japanese magazine.
“Look here,” he says, pointing to a tray in the corner of one color photograph, “that’s my uni.”
As sought after as Santa Barbara sea urchins are, the industry is still a minor one. The entire American harvest last year brought in only $26.5 million (urchins are harvested all over the West Coast and in Maine as well). The catch off the north Channel Islands was worth about $2.7 million in 2003. If it were an agricultural product, that would place it just ahead of flower seed in terms of the county’s earnings. (By comparison, strawberries pull $115 million and broccoli $100 million.)
That’s actually quite appropriate, as Hashimoto constantly compares his uni to cut flowers. It is so delicate, he says, it must be handled with exquisite care, it can’t be exposed to air, and it must be kept in water so it will stay alive.
Even for Southern California cooks, uni can be hard to find in the market. You’re not going to see it next to the farmed salmon at most mainstream groceries. But you will find it -- and plenty of it -- at good Japanese stores. Both Marukai and Mitsuwa are absolutely loaded with the stuff.
There it’s tucked in next to the other sushi ingredients, neatly arranged on traditional pale wood trays that have been packaged in very sterile-looking plastic foam and cellophane. Depending on where and when you shop, figure from $8 to $10 for a tray containing 1.5 to 2 ounces of sea urchin, enough for half a dozen diners.
The next challenge is finding a way to use it. Traditionally, sea urchin roe is eaten simply. In Japan, it is mounded on sushi rice; around the Mediterranean, on a slice of bread with a squeeze of lemon. Assertive as sea urchin roe might be when served that way, when used in other dishes, its incredible mouth-filling flavor goes missing. It simply fades into the background.
I tried making a sea urchin sauce for roast fish -- pureeing the roe with some olive oil and lemon juice. It was delicious by itself, yet all but vanished against the flavor of the Tai snapper I served it on. A stab at a traditional Italian sea urchin pasta sauce made with tomatoes was even worse.
But between the two of them, I did get an idea. When heated, the sea urchin melts into a kind of slightly buttery, subtly briny cream. What if I used that in a pasta sauce? Hey, what about a clam sauce? This worked wonderfully well, though the uni serves mostly as a supporting player, delivering texture and depth of flavor.
When I called Michael Cimarusti, chef at Water Grill downtown and my guru on all things aquatic, he was sympathetic. He said that he’s tried all kinds of dishes with sea urchin, but has rarely found one that improves on the original ingredient. “You know, some things are better just left alone,” he said. Rare wisdom from a young chef.
I told him that I’d been thinking of making a kind of savory panna cotta with sea urchin -- pureeing the roe with milk or cream, then setting it with a little gelatin. As it turns out, he’d just served a dish like that as part of a special weekend tasting menu. He’d finished it with cream infused with fresh wasabi root scraped on a sharkskin grater. And a big lump of caviar. It was very good, he said, but expensive.
I’ll say. At home, I pureed the roe and added milk just to the point it seemed I began to lose the sea urchin flavor. I measured this and added the standard amount of softened gelatin (I figure about 1 teaspoon per cup of liquid as a starting point). I poured this into lightly buttered molds and put them in the refrigerator to set.
It was right about then I realized that $20 of uni had provided only two very small portions of panna cotta -- and that’s before figuring in garnishes or anything else. For me, a dish would have to be pretty danged spectacular to justify that cost. My advice is to go to Water Grill and hope it’s on the menu.
Inventive use of uni
Still hunting for ideas, I called my old friend Michel Richard, chef at Citronelle in Washington, D.C., and former chef at Citrus in Los Angeles. He came to mind not only because he is one of the most graceful, inventive cooks I know, but because of a memorable uni dish he once served me.
It was at Citrus years ago and I was with my mother-in-law, who ordered a Scotch and lit up a cigarette as soon as she got to the table. Michel let her know his disapproval and she let him know she didn’t give a fig for his preferences. A few minutes later, an amuse bouche arrived -- an intense sea urchin consomme served in a remarkably spiny shell. Revenge has rarely been so briny.
As it happened, Michel had just made a sea urchin dish he liked a lot. He’d pureed the roe with just a little cream and then served it on a “pasta” made by freezing a sheet of cuttlefish just enough to firm it, then slicing it very thinly. He’d then flash-cooked these “noodles” in butter and dressed them with the uni puree.
Off I went to the market, and at Mitsuwa I was even able to find sliced cuttlefish. Back home, this dish came together in less time than it will take to read this story. And it was delicious -- pure Michel, innovative and elegant.
I’d be happy to cook either of these pastas again for a special dinner. But having now found how easily available sea urchins are, I can’t imagine having to wait for some big event to be able to indulge.
Instead, for regular enjoyment, I’m more tempted by simpler pleasures, especially as described by one of my favorite cookbook writers, Patience Gray, who wrote in “Honey From a Weed”:
“After work in the summer, [the Apollonians] repaired with a loaf of bread and a flask of wine to a little promontory of rock frequented by sea urchins. Picking them off the rocks underwater, they bashed them in their prickle-covered shells with knife or stone, emptied them, then dipped some bread into the shell to extract their succulent orange ovaries to the accompaniment of jokes and laughter.”