As if you needed yet another reason to love Maine, it turns out Vacationland is one of only three spots on the globe where you can experience a rare seafood delicacy. Aka Uni is a staple in Japanese cuisine, but the spiny sea urchin meat is far less common in the world of New England seafood.
A particular species of sea urchin known as bafun uni thrives in the chilly waters off the coast of Maine. It is considered so desirable to the uni fanatics of Japan that during the 1980’s the spiny critters were dangerously over-fished in order to meet the demand.
Luckily, fishery restrictions have allowed the species to replenish itself and the success of sushi restaurants and Japanese cuisine throughout Boston means that local restaurants are now utilizing the yellowy-orange goo in a variety of traditional Asian dishes – as well as local favorites like pasta and pizza.
A common misconception – even among sushi afficionados – is that the rich, buttery meat obtained from sea urchins are its eggs, or roe. Actually, the highly sought after delicacy is the animal’s gonads or sexual reproductive organs – sea urchins have five.
Although there are hundreds of varieties of sea urchins throughout the world, only 18 are edible and the most prevalent species are found in Japan, Santa Barbara, California, and Maine.
As for the flavor of this strange specialty food, the author of The Uni Diaries, a blog entirely devoted to enjoying sea urchin, describes it as:
“…foie gras – or even ice cream – of the sea. Depending on the variety, diet, and gender, good uni is firm but melts in your mouth with its rich and creamy sweetness, and is just a little bit slimy (a good slimy, I swear!). It’s almost a bit custard-like – but lighter. And important to note, good uni is never fishy but instead, has delicate traces of the ocean.”
Chef Seizi Imura of Boston’s Café Sushi has wild Maine uni on his award-winning menu and describes its unique flavor as “grassy and slightly earthy” compared to Santa Barbara uni, which tends to be sweeter, with more chocolate-oriented flavors.
Imura prefers to serve Maine uni during its peak season— which tends to be late fall through May or June when the waters are their coldest. Supposedly they are best right before they spawn because they tend to be fattier at this time.
According to Imura, uni are similar to oysters in terms of their rich, briny flavor. He also feels that like oysters, colder waters bring out the complexity of the sea urchin’s flavors.
Other Boston restaurants where you can give uni a try include: Coppa, where the Uni Panino features Sea urchin and roasted tongue with pickled mustard seeds, Toro Restaurant which serves a sea urchin sandwich, and Bistro di Mudi – try the the Pasta with Mussels, Sea Urchin and Lemon.