It goes by many names: uni, (Japan), erizo del mar (Spanish), whore’s eggs (Maine), sea urchin roe (which they are not), sea urchin ovaries (what they actually are). But no matter what it’s called, one thing is for sure: sea urchin is tasty stuff.
The sea urchin is an ectoderm, like a starfish or sea cucumber. In full form, the urchin is a little ball (the outer shell is called the “test”) covered in long needles, sort of like a cactus. There are two varieties of urchin off of California—red and purple. On the underside of the urchin is the mouth, informally referred to as “Aristotle’s Lantern.” When you crack open a sea urchin, there is a lot of brown goop, which is digesting kelp and algae, along with its organs. All of this is nasty and ugly. But the orange tongues are beautiful and delicious. Both varieties, red and purple, tend to live in fairly shallow waters where there is a lot of kelp—about 50 meters deep.
Considered an aphrodisiac by some societies, uni is available all year except around April and May, when they are spawning. Prime uni time, however, is between August and October, when their gonads are swollen. The reason Santa Barbara uni is so highly prized is because of the Channel Islands. They provide a sanctuary of clam waters, protected from rough currents.
Uni flavor varies considerably, depending on a few factors. Large ones tend to be brighter in color and a little sweeter, while uni from small urchins tend to be a little duller in color and more briny. Additionally, some people say females have a more sulfurous odor and bitter flavor, while males are sweeter. And like oysters, where they are from really plays a part in their flavor. Depending on the water temperature, the species (there are more than 700 types), the recent weather patterns, the type of kelp they ate, the month of the year, the state of libido, the flavor of each uni can be completely different. And that’s the whole point.
Santa Barbara sea urchin is prized in Japan. Because their culture values the delicacy more than we do, fishermen around here know they can get the highest prices from Japan and high-end sushi restaurants in America. So most of the premium A-grade uni is not eaten in Santa Barbara. In fact, it’s likely that uni we eat here is often from anywhere but here, covered in a preservative which masks the true flavor and intricacies of the uni.