Sea Urchins, a California Cuisine
According to legend, witches once believed that the five lines on a fossilized sea urchin represented the coven's much-treasured pentagram. First-century Roman historian Pliny the Elder said that whoever licked one would find his gallstones broken. Considered an annoyance to some but an aphrodisiac to others, the pointy sea urchin is a creature that deserves a closer examination.
Dating back to the Ordovician period, the globular, spiny creature is a member of the phylum enchinodermata, which also includes starfish, sea cucumbers, brittle stars and crinoids. They lack arms, eyes and fins, and rely on their spines to help them crawl. These spines are rooted in their shell, or "test," and can grow up to 8 centimeters. A mouth with five teeth on their underside helps them consume a diet of seaweed, kelp and algae.
California is home to the red sea urchin, which is found in the Pacific Ocean from as far north as Alaska to as south as Baja California. They prefer to live in shallow water on rocky ground that isn't subject to extreme waves or layers of sand and mud.
We caught up in San Diego, California, to talk with Peter Halmay about the sea urchin diving industry. Halmay has been diving for these spiny sea creatures since the early 1970s, and he is one of the limited-to-300 licensed sea urchin divers in Southern California, as well as a "Barefoot Ecologist," or a diver who oversees the urchin fishery program in the local area. He was also the president of the now-defunct Sea Urchin Harvesters' Association in California, was a president of the former Urchin Producers' Marketing Association in San Diego, and helped organize the nonprofit organization called Institute for Fisheries Resources.
During the 1960s, Halmay said, sea urchins were especially considered a threat to fisheries, since the creatures would cut through and dislocate the healthy kelp forests that the fisheries rely on. Different measures were taken to try to eradicate them, such as crushing them with hammers and liming them.
But this changed in the 1970s when another use was utilized for the spiny echinoid: as culinary delight. The San Diego Fisherman's Association was formed in the 1970s, rallying enough support to convince authorities to allow for the fishery of sea urchins. Safe fishing practices exist now, and the industry is constantly working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to maintain them.
With urchins running abundant across the coast of California, it might be easy to assume that the fishing trade is plentiful. Quite the opposite is so, however: sea urchin fishing can be a hazardous occupation, and only a selective number of permits are released. Divers must battle unreliable conditions under water, breathe through a hose of air that is attached to their boat far above in order to have both hands free for picking urchins, and often anchor their boats in rocky coastal areas.
While nearly all urchins were initially exported to Japan when the trade first started, now, one-third of the more than 800,000 pounds that are produced is consumed in the U.S. Because they are a high-ranked international delicacy, they are highly subject to "Best Practices" standards, which ensure that only quality sea urchin is caught and served. For instance, these practices list specific conditions for harvesting, handling, packing and temperature and sanitation restrictions. In Southern California, harvested urchins must be at least 3.25 inches, while in Northern California, they must be at least 3.5 inches. While there are no legal requirements for how quickly the urchins must reach consumers, because of the short shelf-life of the urchin, they try to get the urchins to the processors within 12 hours, and the processors try to process them within 24-48 hours.
- are sought after for their gonads, the yellow-colored portion inside the shell and the only edible part of the creature
- must be kept safe from wind, rain and sun while in transit
- need to be refrigerated as soon as possible and must be held at a temperature colder than ocean temperatures when they are harvested
- have 48 milligrams of Omega-3 fatty acids, 1 gram of protein and 20 milligrams of fat in every 2-teaspoon serving
Urchins are sought after for their gonads, the yellow-colored portion inside the shell and the only edible part of the creature, known in Japan as "uni." According to the California Sea Urchin Commission, there are 15 calories in every 2-teaspoon serving, which includes 48 milligrams of Omega-3 fatty acids, 1 gram of protein and 20 milligrams of fat. Most often served in sushi, they give off a salty ocean scent, and have a sweet, buttery taste with a firm texture. It's rare to find restaurants that serve or use live sea urchins in their menus, since most sushi bars serve them processed, Halmay said.
There are three different grades of the delicacy: "California Gold" is the highest grade, used mainly for top-quality sushi; "Premium California" are smaller but still intact uni, which are used for sushi, soups, salads, and other combination dishes, and "Select California" is the lowest grade, which is used in soups, sauces and dishes where uni is mixed with other ingredients, including other seafood.
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(Updated: 09/16/13 RED)