For my birthday a few weeks back there had been a plan: we were going to invite 10 people over and make a few courses to celebrate the day, the first of which I had been dreaming about for months – ever since my sister mentioned she had eaten it at a restaurant and talked about how delicious it was. Uni pasta. Otherwise known as sea urchin pasta. (“Uni” simply being the Japanese word for sea urchin.)
For most people, sea urchin is somewhat of an acquired taste. Or rather, an acquired texture. Because while the taste of sea urchin plays an important role in the experience of eating it, it is the texture which is generally off-putting. Its unctuous fatty sliminess is simply too much for some, quite like a fresh raw oyster. But after my first few tentative bites of uni sushi at a Japanese restaurant way back when, I was won and the luxury of indulging in sea urchin every once in awhile is now mine.
For the birthday, the sea urchin pasta fell through because of poor planning on my part, but the desire to taste it didn’t fade and it was only coincidence a few weeks later that found me staring into my favorite seafood store window at a crate of live sea urchins for sale. I had planned to investigate where one could buy sea urchins in Munich, assuming a Japanese food store to be an obvious starting place. I never thought I would find them fresh and in the shell. And when I spoke to my sister later at home and asked, “so do you usually buy them live?” she said “no” and confirmed that hers were generally packed up and ready to eat. Something along this line:
With nose pressed against the window, I decided to go for it and locked up my bike and went into the shop. There were at least three or four people ahead of me in line and I used the time to wonder how the hell I was going to get the sea urchin itself out of the shell and how much to buy. My turn came and I asked the woman who was helping me if they were in fact live. She confirmed and picked up a few showing me how their little needles moved when she touched them. The woman standing next to me in line, who had ordered something safe like a halibut filet, looked at me with some pity in her eyes as I placed my order and watched them being packed up to take home. “Viel Glück beim töten,” she said to me (“Good luck with the killing”), which I think was really incredibly nasty of her and wondered what I’d done to prompt such a sentence.
As I biked home I was grateful that they stayed still and quiet in my bag, fearing that they would somehow become mobile from the bumping of the bike on the road and scratch at the packaging surrounding them like live lobsters
At home I unpacked them and eyed the pile with some trepidation. The saleswoman had told me quickly how to open them with kitchen shears, but I needed more backup. I wanted to see someone else doing it before I shoved a pair of scissors into one of the creatures. Thankfully youtube provided dozens of videos of people opening up live sea urchins, so I was quickly educated.
And indeed they did not protest as the scissors crunched through their shells and I spooned out the orange flesh.
Next, on to the recipe. I called my sister and got the very simple instructions:
Boil salted water for pasta (Spaghetti, Linguini) and when it is boiling put in 450 grams of dry pasta and cook.
Heat 1/2 cup of olive oil in a pan.
Sliver two cloves of garlic and warm them gently in the olive oil.
Sprinkle in a few pinches of hot pepper flakes (I used a half a chili cut very fine)
Toss the cooked and drained pasta in with the oil and spices and toss
Toss in a half a cup of sea urchin meat and a few tablespoons of chopped italian parsley.
Toss again. Serve immediately.
I had a bunch of quail eggs handy so I boiled a few and garnished with them and a bit of tobiko caviar.
I wish I could say that the pasta was what I imagined it to be, and I truly hope the next batch will be. It was very good, but not the umami-infused heaven I had imagined.
My mistakes: I used fresh pasta which sucked up all the oil immediately rather than coating the noodles and making them slippery. Use dried. And my sea urchin was too small – the lobes of flesh were still too firm. So now I will search out a new source and try again.