A centuries-old quote goes, “It was a brave man who first ate an oyster,” but it was a braver soul still who figured out sea urchins were edible. They lie in wait on the sea bed, spherical shells covered in rigid spikes, like balled-up goth hedgehogs daring you to touch them. If you manage to break them open, five orange gonads (not roe, as they’re often called) cling to the shell walls coated in guts, hardly advertising their succulence. Those who love this divisive delicacy, though, are forever indebted to the gastro-pioneers who first cracked one open and those who fish for them today.
Most U.S. diners are introduced to sea urchin via Japanese restaurants (Japan consumes an estimated 80–90% of the global supply), where it’s called uni—a name used just as often in English-speaking culinary circles and markets. Whether you find whole sea urchin or precleaned “tongues” from a market, try them over rice, tossed with pasta, folded into scrambled eggs or just eaten over the sink with a lemon squeeze. If you’re feeling ambitious, blend them into hollandaise, béchamel, other cream sauce or in a savory soufflé base to be baked in cleaned shells for a spectacular appetizer. Uni’s flavors are at once demure and extravagant, and the wine pairing should also balance elegance with personality.
Good uni is more sweet than sea-salty (if your uni tastes bitter or sulfuric, shop elsewhere next time), and sparkling wine with a touch of residual sugar is a refreshing match. The best Sekt—German sparkling— is usually made from Riesling (aka Rieslingsekt), intensely aromatic and energetic with the grape’s trademark acidity. Look for bottles labeled trocken or extra trocken (despite translating to dry and extra dry, these designations allow more sweetness in sparkling than they do in still wines).
It’s the faint “animal” quality of uni that lures and repels diners in equal measure; think of it as the foie gras of the sea. In the same way that foie gras lends itself to bracing fruit accompaniments, crisp low-tannin reds can pair with uni if they’re light-bodied enough. Pale Poulsard (aka Ploussard) from Arbois in Eastern France has gentle earthiness and tart red fruit that maintains a seductive subtlety.
Uni doesn’t share the bold seawater quality of, say, oysters, but has a faintly metallic brininess akin to edible seaweeds. Choose a wine that balances fruit with minerality. Vermentino, the signature white grape of Sardinia but found globally, combines flavors of citrus juice and zest with a nautical sea-spray note that is transportive with uni. In addition, its typical bitter-almond finish teases out the uni’s sweetness.
Uni has a texture like soft panna cotta, but overly buttery wines will overwhelm its delicate flavors. An oaked Chard in perfect balance will work, but try Rhône-style white blends. Modeled after the Marsanne and Roussanne-dominant wines of Northern Rhône, they’re increasingly popular in California, Washington and Australia. Even when dry, they can hint at honey-roasted nuts or apricot jam on toasted brioche, terrific for fans of fuller whites.
You can sometimes buy whole sea urchin in the shell at better seafood markets; otherwise look in Japanese markets that specialize in quality fish for sushi and sashimi. They aren’t inexpensive, but they are culinary gold.
Last Updated: August 31, 2023