The Wife is in the kitchen poking around in the refrigerator. She comes across a small Tupperware container containing a handful of what looked like small beige slugs. Or possibly the turds of very sick cat. Holding the container as if it were an unpinned grenade, she comes out of the kitchen with an unpromising look on her face.
Ah yes, I say. Don’t worry, that’s just some sea-urchin. The gonads of the sea-urchin, to be precise. Very popular in Japan, and actually some coastal communities used to spread them on toast like butter. Which is fascinating, don’t you think?
Wearily she murmurs a reprise of what I just said (“Don’t worry darling, those are just some fascinating sea-urchin gonads”) and gives me a careworn, cool stare. It’s a stare which says, precisely, “If you do insist on hiding food in the fridge, can’t you just make it a Snickers or two like a normal person?” The woman has a point.
Many people find the sea-urchin (or “whore’s egg” as it was once rather rudely known) to be an unattractive, even sinister creature. Covered in sharp spikes, except for the base which is punctuated by an angry little beak, it looks like something a medieval inquisitor might have used to goad a heretic’s private parts in order to extract a confession.
Open up the sea-urchin with kitchen shears and steady hand, and out spills a cupful of evil black goo which is – I’ve been told – semi digested seaweed. But be not afraid, for under this miasma you’ll find the good stuff: the pale, roe-like reproductive organs (a.k.a. the gonads) which taste briny and slightly fishy and excellent.
Until recently, I’d only eaten the creature in two places. Once in Tokyo, the world capital of seafood connoisseurship, which is a good place to eat sea-urchin. And once in Las Vegas, the world capital of mouth-breathing slot machine addicts, which is not. In Japan the sea-urchin tasted bright and smooth. But sat in the dungeon-like MGM Grand, in a fancy restaurant situated down the hall from a buffet whose signature dish is “Chicken and Biscuit Breakfast Muffin”, there the sea-urchin gonads tasted like…. well, how you would probably expect sea-urchin gonads to taste in the middle of the Nevada desert.
This sad episode aside, when I saw a cluster of proud specimens nestled on ice in New York’s best fishmonger the other day, I knew I had to take a couple home as my pets and eat them. As with any delicacy from the ocean floor, sea-urchins must be stored carefully. And that means in a paper bag with a few holes, placed on ice at the back of the lowest drawer in your refrigerator where it is coldest. Once you have prepared them, you may keep them in a tupperware container (in the fridge, obviously) for a few hours, but not much longer than that.
If you are a purist, by all means treat your freshly dismembered sea-urchin as sashimi (known as uni in Japanese). Or on triangles of toast, unadorned except for a squeeze of lemon. Or if you find the sea-urchin particularly challenging, then you can temper your discomfort by using them as a component in a larger dish, as I chose to do. I gave them a starring role in hearty seafood udon noodle soup. I am proud of this dish, which takes all of ten minutes and is my own work. What I love is how the delicate sea-urchin gently disintegrates into the hot soup, infusing it with the delicate essence of the ocean.
Seafood Udon with Sea-Urchin
- Fistful of udon, about 6 oz
- 2 cups Water
- 2 cups Vegetable stock. (You could also use chicken.)
- 3 or 4 shitake mushrooms, sliced
- 2 or 3 baby squid sliced into 1/2 inch pieces, and / or 3 or 4 scallops. You could also toss in a few uncooked shrimp.
- A baby bok-choi, separated into its leafs.
- Soy sauce
- Scallions, thinly sliced
- The flesh of a fresh sea urchin. Preparing them is easy: watch this video.
Cook the udon according to the instructions on the packet, drain, refresh in cold water, set aside.
Bring the water and the vegetable stock to a boil. The ratio of water to stock should be to your taste, because stocks vary in intensity to the barely noticeable to the overpowering.
Add the mushrooms to the stock / water, and let them boil for a minute. Then add the squid and /or scallops and / or shrimp and boil for another minute.
Add the bok choi leafs, for about 10 seconds. They cook almost instantly.
Remove pan from heat. Divide noodles into two bowls, and with a ladle add the stock / seafood / mushroom & vegetables.
Garnish with the scallions.
Add the sea-urchin, which will slowly fall apart and spread throughout the soup.
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