Found on the sea bed of every ocean in the world, uni is enjoyed as a delicacy by many cultures. Dubbed the ‘foie gras of the sea’ for its unique, creamy texture and rich umami flavor, adventurous palates can’t get enough of this golden ocean butter.
Meaning sea urchin in Japanese, uni that we eat is actually the sea urchin’s organ that produces roe. There are five strips of edible uni in each sea urchin, attributed to its five-fold symmetry (similar anatomy to its cousin the starfish.) To reach the uni, one must crack through its rigid shell and sharp spines. When it arrives on your plate, it resembles a grainy, mustard yellow tongue. While uni doesn’t look all that appetizing, we urge you: don’t knock it ‘til you try it!
TASTE AND QUALITY
Fresh uni tastes sweet, custard-like, with a delicate briny essence. It can also be described as eggy, buttery, and full of umami. Good quality uni should be firm to the touch but melt in your mouth at the same time. Other quality indicators include color vibrancy and dryness, if the uni properly retains moisture.
The size, taste, and texture of uni is dependent on many factors like the weather, water temperature, and ocean swell, but most importantly, if it’s eating good kelp. This is why the best uni comes from Hokkaido, the northernmost prefecture of Japan, and the coasts of Santa Barbara in California, where sea urchins are feasting on quality kelp. The most premium grade of uni is sold in wooden trays, which accounts for a very small percentage of all sea urchin caught for commercial sale. The uni that satisfies this high standard are carefully selected based on how uniform they are in size and color.
AROUND THE WORLD
Uni is laboriously and individually hand-picked by professional divers in many parts of the world. In North America, sea urchins are mostly harvested from the coasts of California, Maine, and Canada, either for distribution to Japanese and high-end restaurants or to be exported to Japan.
Uni’s popularity has long been associated with Japanese cuisine since it is often served as a topping for nigiri or gunkan maki sushi. However, sea urchins also feature in other cuisines and are harvested along the Mediterranean coast, Chile, East & Southeast Asia, and New Zealand. In Spain, they call it “erizo de mar” or hedgehog of the sea (how apt!) and usually consume it raw with lemon juice or in a gratin with butter and parmesan. Likewise, Italians add it to pasta dishes and Chileans cook it into stews, quiche-like tartlets, and sauces.
In the Philippines, uni is known as “tuyom” or “swaki” in Bisaya, “kuden-kuden” in Bolinao, and “maritangtang” in Ilocos. Equipped with a mask and sometimes wooden paddle fins attached to their feet, freediving fishermen harvest sea urchin near shore or sandbars at low tide. Local species have shorter white, black, and/or orange spines compared to the long purple spines of species found in Japan or California.
Our local uni also differs from its foreign counterparts in taste and consistency. It is softer & silkier in texture, sweeter in flavor, and has the same richness of crab fat. It is typically eaten raw with vinegar or a squeeze of calamansi juice. At 12/10, we aim to compliment the sweetness of local uni with acidity from our pineapple jelly, the earthiness of liver pâté, and crunchy-buttery sourdough.
Despite the indulgent taste and luxurious feel of eating uni, it is actually full of nutritional value. It is the least calorific among most sushi fish and is high in protein, healthy fats, and vitamins A, E, calcium, and zinc.
If this hasn’t convinced you yet, we hope you’ll give uni a chance the next time you can. And if you’re already a fan of uni, we hope to see you really soon at 12/10!