Sea urchins hit all the taste pleasure points – salt, sweet and umami. In a lot of places, sea urchins are overfished, but that certainly isn't the case off the coast of California, where there's such an overabundance of purple sea urchins that it has become an aquacultural concern. Ali Bouzari is a biochemist and trained chef. He also happens to spearfish and free dive in his spare time, which is how he ended up writing a piece for Saveur entitled “Sea Urchins in Mendocino.” He talked with Francis Lam about researching, diving for, cooking with, and eating purple sea urchins -- and encourages us all to do the same.
Ali Bouzari Photo courtesy: Ali Bouzari
Francis Lam: Sea urchins are the most terrifying looking animals on earth. They look like headless ghosts of porcupines, but are alive and live in the sea where they move around – or their spines move around. Then you eat them, and it's the most amazing flavor. Ruth Reichel, I read recently, calls them her single favorite flavor in the world. First, I want to ask you, because you're a scientist, what makes a sea urchin delicious? They taste like butter that you harvested from the sea. I want to know scientifically how is that possible?
Ali Bouzari: Sea urchins are certified heavy metal. They're covered in this armor of calcium carbonate, they've got spines that help them move around, they breathe out of their feet, and they're just weird. But, they are so delicious because of how vulnerable and open to the elements they are. Think about any time you've gone in the ocean for an extended period of time. Your skin starts to prune, you feel dehydrated, and personally I always crave shrimp. A lot of changes happen to you because you're basically sitting in the world's biggest bathtub full of brine.
Now imagine living your entire life immersed in that super salty, briny environment without the luxury of skin to keep all of your insides functioning and where they should be. Sea urchins don't have skin, unlike fish or even an octopus. So, all that salt that they're sitting in has free reign to pull all of the moisture out and turn them into marine raisins. To combat that effect, sea urchins get into an arms race with the salt in the water. They stockpile stuff that water likes to attach to. They stockpile sugars, amino acids, and salts, which is incredible for us because those are maybe the three most delicious types of molecules in the edible world: sweet, salty, and umami. They basically brine themselves for us. And so, when you hear people getting thoughtful and poetic about their favorite oysters from wherever it is in the world, they'll often talk about the briny, brackish water that those oysters come from; that isn't just prose, it is the reason that those animals are delicious.
FL: That's incredible. You dive for urchins and you just wrote this really fascinating story about diving for purple urchins off the coast of California for Saveur. In the story, you talk about how it's specifically good to eat them. I live on the East Coast where there are Maine urchins, and I hear those are overharvested and that's a problem. Sea urchins, sometimes called uni, have become more and more popular with chefs, so they're getting into all these chef-y dishes. They've become this cliché where chefs are putting uni in everything and we're overharvesting all of them. But part of your story is about how they are overrunning the ecosystem of the coast of Northern California. What's going on there?
AB: The West Coast is a very different urchin story than the East Coast. Here, there are thousands of times more urchins than there have been or should be, historically, and it's due to a combination of factors. Obviously, several of them are our fault as humans, some of them are just freak accidents, but it's a combo of climate change warming the waters and causing problems with how the kelp get nutrients.
There was a freak outbreak that killed a bunch of sea urchins' natural predators, which are sea stars or starfish. We're also still reaping what we sowed at the end of the 1800s by almost eradicating sea otters in this part of the coast, because they also naturally prey on sea urchins. And so, what's happening is this explosion of urchins has taken them from filling a very docile niche – hanging out and vacuuming up the bits and scraps that need to be taken care of on the ocean floor – to becoming these zombie hordes that are literally mowing down 95-plus percent of the kelp in Sonoma and Mendocino County.
There has been an immediate ramification already, where the local recreational abalone fishery, which is where most non-commercially fished abalone come from, is closed, maybe forever, because the abalone also feed on kelp and they just can't compete with the sea urchins. And after that, everything that depends on the kelp as the anchor to the food chain will be swiftly kicked out.
FL: The kelp are basically the forest of the seas, so you're deforesting the entire underwater ecosystem there.
AB: And it's a deforestation that happens crazy quick. I moved to Sonoma County a few years ago, right before my friend and colleague Kyle Connaughton was opening his restaurant SingleThread, and his chef de cuisine Aaron Koseba – who I co-wrote the piece with – taught me how to spearfish, which was just the coolest hobby for a chef to have that you could possibly imagine. When we started four years ago, it was like diving down through this canopy in a submerged tropical jungle. There was fish flitting in and out of the shadows of the kelp, and it was this amazing thing. This spring, when we started to go for the season, it is almost like diving down to the surface of the moon. It's a bunch of craggy, rocky outcroppings that are just dotted with bright flashes of 1980s Prince purple.
FL: Normally, when you have invasive species, you say, “We should eat them,” but it's hard because you have to convince people to eat things like lionfish or Asian carp that they didn't have before. However, sea urchins are incredibly delicious, they're expensive, and chefs want to use them. Why isn't there a huge commercial fishery for these purple urchins? Why aren't we grabbing them all and eating them?
AB: First of all, they're not invasive; they're from here, but they're out of control. One of the issues with purple urchins versus the green urchins that you guys might get on the East Coast, or the larger red urchins that people also harvest out here, is that they are a smaller cousin, they're a smaller species, so their roe, which are the reproductive organs that people call uni, is also smaller. But, that doesn't mean that they're not commercially viable; it definitely doesn't mean that they're not delicious. So, in the 1990s there were actually a couple of years where there was a huge documented push to enhance this purple sea urchin fishery on the West Coast. I think we exported 300,000 or so pounds of purple sea urchin to Japan, where they were actually highly prized because they were smaller and more delicate, and you could incorporate them in dishes in a way that was more subtle rather than just plopping this big, giant, fatty tongue on a piece of rice.
FL: Like your uni sushi.
AB: That is still what the mainstream foodie consumer thinks of when they think of uni; they think of sushi, they think of Japanese food, they think of what they typically see on social media as these big, fat, robust uni tongues. The reality is their applications in the kitchen go way beyond that.
FL: We’ve talked to you as a scientist and as a diver, now let me talk to you as a chef. What can you do with them aside from just plopping them on some nice sushi rice?
AB: Chemically and culinarily, you should think of them as a wonderful hybrid between an artichoke and an egg, or an avocado and an egg may be a better comparison. Again, you ask somebody 10 years ago, “What do you do with avocados?” and nine out of ten times they're going to say guacamole. Now they're in everything, almost to a point of self-parody. Same thing with uni. They are full of fat and protein, so you can use them as a source of browning. You can incorporate them into a barbecue marinade or a yakitori marinade. You can use their fattiness to enrich doughs; they make some of the best brioche that I've ever tasted. I sweated down urchins with andouille sausage and used their fat to make probably the best dirty rice I've ever made.
FL: This also does sound like millionaire food.
AB: It sounds like millionaire food, but it doesn't need to be. If you live on the West Coast, for a 44 dollar a year fishing license, you can even pick these things off the shore. You can gather 35 per person per day right now.
FL: And we should be, is what you're saying, because we need that kelp to come back.
AB: And we should be. We have this horrendous track record of just decimating anything we get excited about, so this is the universe offering up a chance, a small chance at redemption, where we can put our fervor to good use.
FL: Ali, this is awesome; you are awesome. Thank you so much.
AB: Thank you. Come out to Sonoma County and I'll feed you some urchin.
Ali Bouzari wrote the Saveur article “Sea Urchins in Mendocino." He is also the author of Ingredient: Unveiling the Essential Elements of Food and is a co-founder of Pilot R&D, a restaurant research and collaboration project.
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.