Foraging for sea urchin roe

by Forager on May 22, 2011

Or should that be sea urchin gonads? Let’s not beat about the bush here. There’s no “roe” per se, the revered Italian ricci di mare or Japanese uni you find atop sushi is actually one of 5 gonad segments in a sea urchin. Didn’t think you’d ever eat reproductive organs? Sorry to burst that bubble.

Foraging was far from my mind when I headed down the NSW south coast a few months ago to attend the wedding of our good friends. Awaiting us was a large house with an impressive deck overlooking expansive views of the beach and many friends to enjoy it with. It looked like sun, beach and relaxing was on the cards.

The view from our holiday house in Mollymook

The view from the deck of our holiday house in Mollymook

The sea beckons

The sea beckons

Some clever friends blessed with more annual leave than us started their holiday down south during the week preceding the wedding and had plenty time to explore the area and surrounds. They’d discovered almost pristine rock pools on beaches that would be considered deserted by Sydney standards. The locals seemed more than content to surf the rolling white waves, paying nary any attention to the rockpools teeming with wildlife, so they’d discovered an ignored forager’s paradise – and thankfully, alerted me.

We corralled a few foragers, some more full of foraging beans than others and set off in search of these rockpools. With me and the Co-pilot were friends Gem, Zoe, Sambo and his lovely wifey, Lise, a marine biologist by trade – and it showed that she was utterly in her element, scrambling around the rocks like a fascinated child. But who doesn’t like rockpools? I find them much more fascinating (not to mention safer) than the waves and love scratching around in them, finding slow moving snails and limpets that mooch around on rocks; scuttling crabs that kamikaze jump off ledges and poking at little fish, sea squirts and all manner of other creatures that have the misfortune of being trapped in a shallow pool to be found by me.

Co-pilot foraging

The Co-pilot goes foraging

Hiding shore crab

Hello Mr Crab, I see you!

I was full of zeal from the foraging bonanza before us when I spotted a particularly healthy bunch of pigface weed hugging a cliff just beyond the rockpools. Ripe pigface fruit are sweet and have a subtle fruitniness like salty strawberries born of the sea. Determined to harvest some ripe pigface fruit for my fellow foragers I set off at a hearty pace, bounding over large boulders with confidence and enthusiasm. A mere metre away from the pigface weed I looked down to consider where to next place my foot and spotted a large green stretch of discarded hose pipe. Absent-mindedly I tutted to myself – it’s a shame when our natural environment gets polluted with litter. And that’s when the hose pipe moved. An instinctive reptilian part of my brain had stilled my muscles and frozen my legs in place. At about the same time my brain realised with utter horror that I was about to step on a snake, the snake had noticed my presence and with almost sinister intent raised its head onto a boulder and made direct eye contact with me.

Coming too close for comfort with a very large coastal carpet python

Coming too close for comfort with a very large coastal carpet python

coastal carpet python

and more snake... it seemed to go on forever

Its situations like these that I retrospectively reflect upon with interest. I’d like to think that I have the reflexes of a ninja; that the ju jitsu martial arts training I indulged in when I was younger can switch back on with lightning fast speed with prowess that would elicit a low and appreciative whistle from martial arts masters the world ’round. Sadly, the truth is always so much more disappointing. Time and time again I am disappointed to discover that my fight or flight response consists entirely of immediately and dramatically gripping onto the Co-pilot’s upper arm firmly with both hands and a simultaneous sharp intake of breath. A response that will anchor us both to the spot and ruin both of our survival chances.

In this case, there was no slow motion qi gong style; Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon-style nimble backward levitation through the air to a safer vantage point. The reality was that a number of thoughts assaulted my brain all at once, all within a split second. Should I freeze? No, I think that’s for angry bears and dogs. Should I square myself up and appear larger? No, that only works on The Gods Must be Crazy. Should I run? Perhaps – that’s what my brain is screaming to do. So I awkwardly turned, arms waving wildly, legs shaking uncontrollably and part stumbled, part scrambled, part screamed my way back across the rocks. On more than one occasion I lost my footing and came close to cracking my forehead on a boulder. Only when I realised that the snake wasn’t making an aggresive charge towards me did I calm my nerves and stealthily sneak back over to steal a few candid photos of the serpent.

Watching from the beach, the Co-pilot had noticed my less-than-graceful four legged scramble across the rocks. He couldn’t hear me yelling “SNAKE!!” so I resorted to some more wild arm waving and charades. That got the group moving towards me quickly and everyone clambered across the rocks to get a better look. With one glance of the 2 metre+ snake, these outdoor and country-wisened boys proclaimed it to be just a python, almost dismissively and ignoring my protests, proceeded to clamber ever closer for a better look.

Through the wonder of technology, I did some quick on-the-spot research on my iPhone and found a handy identification guide to Sydney’s snakes. Unfortunately, the very first step in identification was discerning whether it had a forked tongue, the second step required identification of whether its head was covered in regular shields – both steps required me being much to close to the snake for comfort and I gave up on that. From matching images I believe the snake might have been a coastal carpet python. Non-venomous but grows to 2m or 3m – u-huh, sounds about right – wild foraging just got a little too wild for my liking. So much for rockpools being “safe”!

Sea urchins galore

Sea urchins galore hiding in rock crevasses

We returned to the relative safety of the lower tidal rockpools where with a little more foraging we found a motherload of sea urchins – more than I’d ever seen. We looked at these spiky critters with interest and curiosity and  recounted the many stories and scenes of seeing freshly harvested urchins eaten on Mediterranean shores dressed simply with a squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of olive oil and perfumed with the scent of the sea. Again turning to my iPhone,  I found the black and reddish varieties we were poking at were actually spiny sea urchins and common or purple sea urchins urchins – the latter being Heliocidaris erythrogamma, the only commercially exploited species of sea urchin in Australia and thus, importantly, edible. Incidentally, all photos on this post were taken on my iPhone so whilst the quality isn’t at all comparable to that from a DSLR or even my compact camera, I’m still pretty impressed at how well they turned out!

A makeshift sea urchin carrybag

A makeshift sea urchin carrybag - ample protection against errant spines

We decided we should stop dilly-dallying and plucked up the courage to forage for and prepare our own sea urchin. The spines of the sea urchin were pretty spiky, but being the resourceful bunch that we are, Sambo fashioned a makeshift carry bag from some nearby seaweed and transported it back to our holiday residence, were I resolved to research a little more about our intended meal and how to prepare it.

Did you know:

  • The latin name for the phylum the sea urchin belongs to is Echinodermata, where “Echinodermate” means “spiny skin” in Greek.
  • Like all other echinoderms, the sea urchin is pentamerous showing 5-fold symmetry – hence the 5 gonads. Irregular species have 4 gonads.
  • The gonads are present in both male and female sea urchins – and the sexes are very difficult to distinguish
  • The sea urchin’s “shell” or calcium carbonate outer is called the “test”
  • The spines are used for locomotion, help defend the sea urchin from predators, help it burrow into rocks and help it trap food
  • The sea urchin has no heart, eyes and with a simple nervous system – no true brain. The nerve centre is around the lantern with connections to the spines and feet.
  • The mouth of the sea urchin is in the centre of the lower half and consists of lips, a fleshy tongue-like structure with numerous small bones in it. This chewing piece is called Aristotle’s lantern.
  • The sea urchin’s teeth are self sharpening – it can chew through stone!
  • The gonads, termed roe or coral, are considered delicacies in many countries and has a strong rich flavour. In Japan it can retails for as much as $400/kg; in the US they were considered ocean pests until a market developed for the roe in Japan and in Maine, US they were referred to as whores’ eggs and are probably exported to Japan.
  • Sea urchin is graded based on colour and coarseness: from a white/yellow colour and fine texture is given A grade to a D grade given to roe of black colour and coarseness.
  • Males generally produce higher grade roe than females.
  • Not surprisingly, given it is the gonads we’re talking about here, it is 50% fat and contains 710 calories per 100g.
  • The purple sea urchin, also known as the common urchin or Heliocidaris erythrogramma is one of the most common urchins found in Sydney and can grow up to 11cm.
  • Urchins are harvested year round in Australia, but the roe is best from September to December.
  • Finally, it is important to note that there are foraging limits in place in Australia – refer to your local fisheries department for the appropriate license.

Some quick tutorials on Youtube gave me enough confidence to start tackling the sea urchin preparation. In anticipation of the potential squeamish events ahead, all our forager friends had abandoned us in favour of alcohol and snacks on the deck. So it was just me, Lise and a small sharp knife. But it was just a wee tad harder than first thought to cut through the hard sea urchin test and it soon became clear that if I persisted, I’d have blood flavoured urchin and a burning desire to re-attach my severed arm. I swapped my weapon of choice to a pair of kitchen scissors instead and found some success by piercing the urchin straight through its point of vulnerability: its mouth. Once my scissors had found a purchase on the test, it was hard going, but I eventually managed to create a small porthole to peer into the inky darkness.

Sea urchin protective gear includes plastic bags and tea towels to avoid being spiked

Sea urchin protective gear includes plastic bags and tea towels to avoid being spiked

Cutting the urchin

Cutting - no, hacking open the sea urchin

Golden sea urchin gonads

Golden sea urchin gonads

And there was emptiness. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t just 5 roe segments covered in a deep crimson primordial ooze, a few scant mutilaginous membranes clinging to the inner walls and nothing else. Tellingly, Lise peered in excitedly, peered a little more and then asked “where’s the rest of it?”. Not knowing the answer we continued to peer and poke inside the urchin,  speculating about how it worked and why it needed such a large frame to support so much empty space.

We persisted and created a large enough opening for me to insert a teaspoon and scoop out the golden segments of roe, one by one. These were dropped into a waiting bowl of water as they were covered in bits of crushed shell, purple ooze, remains of membranous material that was holding the roe in place and very disturbingly, much to our nervous amusement, oozing tracts of white goo on the segments. Despite having disconnected the roe from the urchin, and despite our best attempts to wipe away the ooze and keep it from returning, it did, generously replenishing with spontaneous goo production. I did a fair amount of research, but still I can’t determine what this is, and can only conclude, since they are gonads, that the tract is the sea urchin equivalent of the vas deferens and the goo was sperm… *sigh* Sometimes, I wish I could leave the damn research out of it and remain blissfully ignorant.

The raw "unprocessed" sea urchin roe looks less than appetising

The raw "unprocessed" sea urchin roe looks less than appetising

With the roe segments scooped out, it was time to turn out attention to the other parts. Lise, still fascinated by the Aristotle’s Lantern mouthpiece, let her marine biologist alter ego take over and set about trying to dissect it with gusto. We then focused on the empty urchin itself and fascinatingly, the spines were still moving long after we’d dissected it. It reminded me of the first time I dissected frogs in biology classes and watched in morbid wonder as the heart kept beating long after death.

Aristotles Lantern - the colourful name for the sea urchin's mouthpiece

Aristotles Lantern - the colourful name for the sea urchin's mouthpiece

Aristotle's Lantern

Lise dissects Aristotle's Lantern, the sea urchin's mouthpiece

After several washes, the water stopped clouding over and the goo production stopped so we declared it ready to eat. I drained the segments (which after washing and rough extraction from the shell looked a bit worse for wear), plated them, drizzled over a little lemon juice and looked expectantly at Lise.

Cleaned sea urchin roe

Cleaned and "processed" sea urchin roe

Freshly foraged sea urchin roe

Freshly foraged sea urchin roe

And that’s about the same time Lise’s  resolve faltered. “Are you going to eat it?” she asked, to which I replied simply “Yes”. “What – the whole thing?” she asked, her voice unsure, to which I again just replied “Yes”. And that was enough convincing for Lise – she was committed. But that’s not surprising for adventure woman extraordinaire Lise – if you think you’re an adventure junkie, you haven’t met Lise. Climbing mountains, scaling cliffs and canyons, multi-day marathons through the bush, trekking through Antartica, swimming in the vicinity of large salt water crocodiles in the name of science – tick. The sea urchin was not going to challenge this wild one.

And the verdict?

The look of pleasant surprise on Lise’s face said it all. It wasn’t as bad as she’d expected clearly and she described the flavour to be similar to oysters. I would have to say the flavour of these urchin roe were not as rich and unctuously creamy as I’m accustomed to in Japanese restaurants. The texture of the foraged roe certainly had a creamy consistency but the flavour was much more subtle, a little briny and just tasted of the freshness of the sea.

How the professionals do it - the uni at Makoto

How the professionals do it - the uni at Makoto

To properly compare the flavour of our foraged urchin to commercially available restaurant standard urchin, I took it upon myself to visit my favourite sushi train restaurant, Makoto, for a sample of theirs. At first glance, it didn’t look too dissimilar to our foraged roe (damages from my amateur roe extraction aside that is), but I did note that the colour was a little lighter than ours – perhaps denoting it an A grade and ours a B grade? With one bite, the flavour difference between this uni and our foraged roe was crystal clear – the strong creamy, buttery flavour and almost spreadable liver-like texture was just simply absent in our foraged roe.

This is not particularly surprising I guess as presumably the rockpool dwelling urchins I foraged for aren’t as revered and highly prized as this uni sample which incidentally came from sea urchins dwelling at a depth of 18m in the icy cold Tasmanian waters, collected by divers that must have very effective insulated wet suits or no working receptors for cold temperatures. The commercially harvested urchins are still processed by hand, one at a time, but using pliers and specialised tools that look like garden spades with blades that magically appear when squeezed. The urchins are expertly cut, the roe carefully removed and with a level of care usually reserved for cradling precious cargo like newborn kittens, the segments are washed by hand to remove extraneous debris. The high level of manual labour required part explains the high prices these golden segments fetch, the other part of the equation is simply supply and demand.

Though our foraged sea urchin roe wasn’t perhaps as high grade as commercial sea urchin, it was still an eye-opening experience to learn how to prepare the urchin and to learn more about this common fixture on our seashores. Whilst I certainly still have to work on my urchin roe extraction technique and efficiency, at least now a visit to the beach might also hold the promise of a tasty seashore snack.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nic@diningwithastud May 22, 2011 at 8:14 am

What a great experience! Iv never had sea urchin but the final product looks amazing :)

2 Tina@foodboozeshoes May 22, 2011 at 5:02 pm

I know some people who would have died to be foraging with you for uni. Good job getting into it and not being turned off by the… “sperm”
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3 Howard Trang May 22, 2011 at 11:45 pm

Amazing, just amazing. Was good to see you continued your ‘research’ at Makoto too! Were you tempted to take the crab home too? 😛
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4 Rebecca @InsideCuisine.com May 23, 2011 at 11:10 am

what an amazing experience! remember when I did a 100 mile local food challenge I was thinking about what I could forage in Sydney and surrounds. Lovely post as always Trina.
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5 Conor @ Hold the Beef May 23, 2011 at 1:42 pm

Another awesome forage, fraught with danger and suspense!! I always thought it was a bit odd and confusing to call it roe, but I guess it sounds more appetising than gonads. You know what goes great with fresh gonads though? Grilled snake 😀
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6 OohLookBel May 23, 2011 at 3:56 pm

You really know how to live on the edge, don’t you? Though I am glad it’s you and not me who’s googling ‘big snakes’ and ‘what is that urchin’! I’ve never been a big fan of uni, but seeing the effort that goes into finding and preparing them, I have a newfound respect.
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7 shaz May 23, 2011 at 10:25 pm

Sun, sea, sand, and er..sperm? Awesome post, and I’m not sure I’ll look at uni the same way again.
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8 chopinandmysaucepan May 24, 2011 at 5:22 pm

Thanks for this great post.

Sea urchin “roe” is fishy, gooey, slimy, stinky and I love it! :) :)
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9 Chris May 24, 2011 at 7:42 pm

Wow! I’ve only tried sea urchin once from Makoto, and it was delicious, but I never thought it was something that could be foraged. I think the only thing that could scare me more than a snake by the rockpool is an octopus!

10 Phuoc'n Delicious May 25, 2011 at 4:07 pm

What an adventure! I’ve never had sea urchin before but now that you’ve pointed out what it is I’m not much in a rush to eat it just yet.. lol

11 Bonnibella May 26, 2011 at 9:32 am

Wow, you always has incredile adventerous abliet not as wild as your friend Lise but in the food world. I am amazed at your extensive research and your reaction to the white “goo”. The iphone pictures turned out great, just as good as a P&S.
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12 cathy x. May 26, 2011 at 11:43 pm

i consider myself to be fairly open-minded but it looks really scary.. like a chestnut that’s just been discovered after rotting under a pile of wet leaves for 6 weeks.. :\

13 mademoiselle délicieuse May 27, 2011 at 11:04 pm

I love reading your foraging adventures and this is right up my husband’s alley as sea urchin is one of his favourite things. Not so much for me as I find the texture an acquired thing and the scent often overpowering, though I will eat it from time to time. Mum tells me you could find these quite easily on the shores of Hong Kong during her childhood and that, due to their fishiness, were often used as bait by amateur fishers!
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14 Helena @ Foodyphile May 30, 2011 at 1:03 am

woahh! I wish I could do just that! Must have been such an incredible experience!
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15 April @ My Food Trail May 31, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Awesome! I can’t believe you found your own sea urchin, though disappointing it wasn’t as good as the restaurants. The colour didn’t look the same.

Thanks for all the interesting facts… never knew I was eating sea urchin gonads!! Haha
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16 Ed June 2, 2011 at 12:44 pm

I remember we were on holiday and a friend stepped on them. My mum said the thing to do is to pee on it but his parents thought is was disgusting and it became infected. I’ve always been a bit nervous of them in the wild because of that.

I often just have them on toast. But I found them on the menu at Golden Fields in St Kilda the other week handled in a good way that deals with their funky flavour – “Fresh sea urchin, flat bread, crisp lardo, escabech”. You can see it here http://www.flickr.com/photos/tomatom/5756657103/in/set-72157626675470949
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17 Vivian - vxdollface July 21, 2011 at 11:54 pm

Interesting experience & post!
Never knew they were gonads.. :( now every time I eat it, I’ll think of the oozing sperm :O

18 Forager July 25, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Hey Nic – It’s definitely worth a try. The flavour is really buttery & rich – sometimes not unlike oysters.

Hey Tina – It was a fun experience & I’m all for finding out how our food gets to the table. The sperm bit – nope, not something I wanted to learn.

Hey Howard – You bet! If it wasn’t close to impossible to catch them fast critters I probably would have too!

Hey Rebecca – I’m starting to find that there really is plenty to forage for if you know what you’re looking at and how to treat/prepare it.

Hey Conor – can you imagine how offputting gonads on rice sound? Yes, uni seems a much more pleasant proposal!

Hey Shaz – It was undoubtedly gross. I wonder how the professional clean away the ooze – as there must be a more efficient way than what we did.

Hey chopinandmysaucepan – I didn’t get “stinky” in our prep, but agree with the fishy, gooey and slimy wholeheartedly – there was that in spades!

Hey Chris – An octopus? Really? Is it an arachnophobia thing? I don’t think of them as particularly scary in rockpools, but I must admit I’d find them very scary if I came across an agressive one when scuba diving. *shudder*

Hey Phuoc’n Delicious – Oh no – I don’t want to turn you off! It really does have a lovely flavour so don’t let it’s origin or preparation put you off!

Hey Mademoiselle Delicieuse – Bait! That is bizarre as a (really ineffective) amateur fishwoman myself, I’m always losing my bait to annoying little fish & the sea urchin doesn’t seem like it’d have enough textural integrity to stay on the hook. AND not to mention how much work it is to prepare that spiky thing for bait! It must be a very alluring bait then if they did persist with it!

Hey Helena – You can! Just get yourself a one day fisheries license from the official website (state specific) & head down to the rockpools!

Hey April – No, the colour wasn’t the same, but that could’ve been due to me washing them 5 million times to clean away the ooze, or more likely because the restaurant quality ones are found from much deeper waters & much better quality.

Hey Ed – I didn’t think peeing on wounds would really help & I think that’s a common myth solution for jellyfish stings not sea urchin stings. I know urine is sterile (or should be at least) so it’s fine from that aspect, but didn’t think the basic ammonia/urea content would really contribute much for anti-toxic properties. It’d probably add to the infection more than help! Some urchins can be toxic or at least cause infected wounds though so you’re right to be cautious! You have them on toast? You know, I’ve never seen them anywhere but in Japanese restaurants or eaten from the shell in the Meditteranean. On toast is novel!

Hey Vivian – Sorry. I didn’t (really) mean to leave people put off by those golden gonads. Hehe..

19 thehomefoodcook August 5, 2012 at 2:56 pm

Wow, nice! This post reminds me of when I was at the Mornington Peninsula, down in Melbourne. I was similarly among some rock pools at the beach and I met a local who showed me how to throw the sea urchins against the rocks to crack their outer shells. He then proceeded to pluck out the roe and slurp them right up!

I had a go myself, and they were the most delicious and fresh sea urchin roe I had ever had! But I did feel quite bad for the poor little urchins…They’re so cute. If you pick them up in your hand, they will use their spines to walk! I also did prick myself a couple of times on the spines but they will go away after a bit.
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20 sushi restaurants in kennewick April 22, 2013 at 8:10 pm

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21 Nova Morgan April 9, 2015 at 9:42 pm

we get Uni all the time for my son who adores it … Some more inspiration?
http://novamorganoz.blogspot.com.au/2014/04/sea-urchin-roe-on-menu.html
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