Originally published in Eat Drink & Be Merry
By Dylan James Ho
Up until a few years ago, my early images of Santa Barbara were rather narrow-minded and quite collegiate. I remember walking around UC Santa Barbara’s Isla Vista party zone with red solo cups held upside-down to show police that we weren’t publicly drinking. I remember seeing videos of bare-footed, stoned fans rocking out to Jack Johnson’s sleepy, mostly boring, jams at the Santa Barbara Bowl. Oh yeah, and one of Father Serra’s crumbly missions built centuries ago. As I grew older, I no longer thought about that once I discovered the benefits and joys of gratuitous wine tasting in Santa Barbara’s surrounding areas of Santa Ynez, Santa Maria, Lompoc and Los Olivos. In less than 2.5 hours, you can ditch your miserable 9-5 and get a taste of the affluent life for chk-chk… nothing. For many Southern Californians, Santa Barbara makes for one of the best weekend getaways, especially for me and Jeni. It’s our Napa Valley, minus the stuffiness and arduous drive. But on our most recent trip to Santa Barbara in November, I had a different idea of Santa Barbara. I couldn’t think of anything else but one thing that people either love or hate (mostly hate): sea urchin. The Japanese call it uni, the Spanish call it erizo de mar (“hedgehog of the sea”) and the Italians call it ricci di mare. In Maine, they were once referred to as “whore’s eggs”. Nothing starts my day like a fresh bowl of whore’s eggs. And worldwide, it’s known simply as “delicious”. Over the last five years, I had grown not just a liking, but a passion for all things uni. Any time I see uni on the menu, I’m going to order it, no matter how bizarre it sounds. I’ve had it as sashimi, as sushi, in pasta, in croquette form, as a flavored Japanese snack and if I remember correctly, even as ice cream. But I haven’t eaten live Santa Barbara. I had live Russian uni in Hakodate, Japan (Hokkaido) and it was one of the most amazing breakfasts one can have. While San Francisco has their luscious oysters of Tomales Bay, Santa Barbara has their delicious, spiny offerings. Almost all uni you eat in Los Angeles will be shipped from Santa Barbara, according to the many sushi chefs I’ve asked. So the time has come to go straight to the source.
Before I move on, does anyone not know what uni is?! Uni consists of the gonads (reproductive organs) of the sea urchin and it’s highly prized in cuisines all over the world. It is sometimes mislabeled as sea urchin “roe” – they’re not eggs! The sea urchin is a ball-shaped critter with hundreds of spines that are usually 1? in length, and sometimes up to 4? in defense mode. I myself have seen some LONG spines while diving in the Caribbean – like 6?-8? and didn’t bother trying to capture it! It belongs to the echinoderm family like sand dollars and sea stars and enjoys feeding off algae and kelp. Whoever first ate the gonads of the sea urchin was one hungry man, like the first guy (probably an Arawak) who first cracked open an oyster. Once you cut those spines off, the sea urchin is at your mercy.
On an early Saturday morning, Jeni and I took off on our bikes and rode around the Downtown area of Santa Barbara. It’s one of the best ways to enjoy Santa Barbara. People are running along the beach doing healthy stuff, checking out the farmer’s market, probably lighting up some herb and just enjoying the sun. I had heard the Santa Barbara pier was a good spot for seafood naturally and I looked up this place called Santa Barbara Fish Market, making that our first destination. Like a fat kid with $2 running after the ice cream truck, I quickly found the tiny seafood market and parked my bike. Eager, I looked in all the cases and tanks… shit, no uni! The guy working there had no idea when the next shipment would come in. I knew places like the Hungry Cat or various SB seafood markets would technically be offering live sea urchin due to its location, but after calling around, it didn’t seem people really knew, or even cared for this spiny delicacy. Jeni laughed when she saw my look of disappointment. But then, the food gods showed us the way. As we were getting back on our bikes, we saw some people huddled around some folding tables down by the dock. And we found our savior standing around three plastic tubs containing uni. Our savior came in the form of a white guy in his 40s, wearing a visor, sunglasses, T-shirt and Levi’s. “And what is thy name, oh Lord of uni?”
“I’m Harry Liquornik and I’ve been diving for sea urchin for 25 years.” “Liquor” rhymes with “occur”, not the booze. And he’s also known locally as “Harry Urchin”. Harry Urchin and sometimes another diver hop on a boat around 6 am three to four times a week to dive for uni. Depending on the season, they’ll sometimes head north for 2-3 hours by boat towards some islands off of Santa Cruz and Santa Maria and dive for urchin there. Harry states that June and March is the general uni season in California, with August, September and October being the most lucrative time for harvesting. The sea urchin tastes best during those three months since they are very “hot and bothered” (swollen gonads).
Harry charges $5 per sea urchin and this is a steal considering some restaurants may charge $15 for one. And if you buy two, Harry will hook you up at $8. “Two please. Two massive ones.” Harry went looking through his various containers, picking each one up and comparing it to the next until he found me two delectable ones. Harry says he’s seen some bigger than basketballs once the spines have been cut. Whoa!
Harry then brought out his state-of-the-art “uni cracker” that would reveal the sea urchin’s jewels of masculinity/femininity and forfeit them to human consumption. He turned the sea urchin over on its top side and placed the cracker jaws right over the mouth. I could see the spines slowly moving, knowing very well what was about to happen. Gripping the cracker with his left, he pounded the handle with one blunt hit with his right palm. Whack! The jaws immediately broke through the thin shell and sunk into the cavity of the sea urchin, slightly cracking it and spilling out some liquid. Then he gripped the clamp handle of the cracker which spread the jaws outwards and the sea urchin was completely halved.
The first thing I saw upon cracking the sea urchin open was the beautiful golden gonads. It was a eurekamoment. It was the same exact thing us uni-lovers couldn’t wait to eat at sushi bars. The uni was simply beautiful in color and reeked of the salty California waters in a good way. Contrary to looking at the entrails of a mammal or fish, the sea urchin was a rather beautiful thing to look at. The colorful purple spines, the golden gonads, the various colors of digested kelp that almost resemble orchids. With a plastic spoon, Harry began to do the “dirty work” by pouring out the contents of the cavity and pulling out the intestines and tubes. Once those are gone, there’s only one thing left to do: eat the uni. Sea urchin has fivefold symmetry with a total of five gonadal “clusters”. Each piece of uni can range anywhere from 40-60 calories, safe to say one piece of uni sushi is 80-120 calories plus rice and nori. So imagine how many whole sea urchins are needed to fill up ONE of those wooden uni trays. With the plastic spoon, I scooped out the uni like it was ice cream. Some of the spines were still moving!
It is nearly impossible to detect the sex of the urchin. I found a site quoting, “roe from female sea urchins were commonly associated with sulfur odor, bitter taste, and metallic flavor, while roe from the male sea urchins were associated with sweet taste.” See, males are generally sweeter than females. But really, it doesn’t matter – what matters is the taste. Forrest Gump could very well have replaced his chocolate box/life analogy with uni. Depending on the water temperature, size, month and state of libido, each uni will in fact taste different and you really don’t know what you will get. I typically enjoy sweet, creamy, custard-like uni as opposed to the sometimes metallic uni. The sea urchins I had this day were perfectly sized and had a good amount of creaminess and brininess. But both were very different in flavor profile. I’ve eaten enough uni to experience a “bad uni day” and this was definitely not one.
I noticed that the uni Harry had had larger clusters versus the smaller-clustered uni I’ve eaten in sushi restaurants. He said that the larger the sea urchin, the larger the uni but you really don’t know until you crack it open. On any given dive, Harry can range anywhere from 80-120 sea urchins. From there he sends them to a processor which finds all the “A” grade uni and delivers them to sushi restaurants. These are typically the small-clustered ones. He also noted that the Japanese chefs are extremely particular with their uni. Japanese? Picky? Really?
Harry typically sells his catch on Saturday mornings from 6 am – 10 am right on the dock. If you’re using Google to locate Harry, I recommend searching for the Santa Barbara Fish Market or Brophy Bros., which by the way has some really decent clam chowder. This is not located at Stearns Wharf but by all the boats. Harry Urchin has graciously offered his contact for those that are serious about eating live sea urchin. Give him a call prior to heading up to Santa Barbara to see if he has a catch. He is also down in Santa Monica on Tuesdays or Wednesdays to sell his catch to restaurants like Hungry Cat and various sushi joints. He can arrange a meet up to sell his spiny delicacies. Come say hello to Harry Urchin and let him know that you read about him – he’ll be stoked!
If you’re new to uni, I highly recommend giving this amazing delicacy a chance. It’s the best. Thanks for reading.