Spaghettini with sea urchin, from Giuseppe, Arnaldo & Sons in Southbank.

Spaghettini with sea urchin, from Giuseppe, Arnaldo & Sons in Southbank. Photo: Marina Oliphant

“Hunting for ritza (sea urchins) is a favourite pastime in Alexandria. It is a pleasure to swim out to the rocks, dive into the sea and discover hosts of dark purple and black, spiky jewel-like balls clinging fast to the rocks, a triumph to wrench them away, and a delight to cut a piece off the top, squeeze a little lemon over the soft, salmon-coloured flesh, scoop it out with some bread, and savour the subtle iodised taste, lulled by the rhythm of the sea.”

—  A Book of Middle Eastern Food, by Claudia Roden

Ask me what my favourite foods are, and the list could look something like this, depending on my mood:

sea urchins

They look scarier than they really are. Photo by Stephanie Wood.

1. Sea urchin
2. Mangosteen
3. Sea urchin
4. Good sourdough with the best butter
5. Sea urchin

I go crazy for the inhospitable sea urchin. You’ve seen them, right? Black, or reddish-purple-brown, and armour-coated with spikes. Penetrate their thorny defence system and, inside, you’ll find tender tongues of orange roe — I’m told the lighter roe are the ovaries and the darker, the male gonads. Fish markets and top-end seafood shops sometimes sell the roe — an expensive delicacy — layered in tiny wooden crates.

The Japanese, who consume around 85% of the world’s yield, call sea urchin uni and serve it as sashimi and in sushi. Maoris call it kina and eat it straight from the shell. The Italians toss it through cooked spaghetti. The new restaurant at Sydney’s Four Seasons hotel — the Woods — is serving grilled sea urchin in a salad with cucumber and yoghurt. Stephanie Alexander has a recipe for sea urchin custard in her A Shared Table (1999, Viking, Penguin), Sydney chef Pete Evans makes sea urchin sandwiches, while Victorian chef George Biron, in a Marseillais sort of a fashion, loves to eat sea urchin with a glass of pastis. A Lebanese friend used to dive for sea urchins off the coast of Byblos.To be sure, sea urchin might be an acquired taste — or a taste some might prefer not even to think about acquiring. It’s pure essence of the sea: unctuous, slippery, sensual and very, very rich.

French chef Pierre Gagnaire does a much better job of describing it than I can: “It is incredibly complex, at once bitter and sweet, radically sea scented and slightly smoky, with notes of hazelnut, honey and even blood! The texture is creamy and elusive. It’s an extreme, almost sexual sensation.”

And, when I discover the gonads contain a euphoria-causing chemical ingredient called anandamide, it starts to become clear why I might have such a passion for these creatures. But they’ve sorely tested my spirit …

A year or so ago, a bloke at work dumped a plastic bag holding a couple of grubby Tupperware containers on my desk. Inside, six sea urchins he’d foraged the day before from a Sydney beach. (His wife’s a lucky woman: I’d previously been the beneficiary of his jam-making efforts, receiving a little Vegemite jar of ginger and fig jam made to a Sean Moran recipe and, on another occasion, his pickling efforts, getting a bottle of his lime pickles. Don’t start me on the pictures he’s shown me of the results of his fishing endeavours …)

I couldn’t tell my colleague that I’d never opened a sea urchin in my life. The Tupperware containers came home with me. On Twitter I asked for advice: Neil Perry responded: “take sharp scissors & cut about 2 inch circle around the opening. tip the water out and remove tongues and devour. Yum!” he wrote. But where’s that opening? I asked in reply, considering my urchins, which seemed to be spiky all over. “It is the bottom with what I call the mouth. it is the only place the spines aren't covering. The bum i guess… ha ha”. Two tweets, and I had a plan. Seemed straightforward enough.

It was an hour or more later and my kitchen was strewn with broken black sea urchin spikes by the time I had worked out how best to thank Mr Perry for his advice.

This is what I had discovered: pink rubber washing-up gloves won’t protect you from an errant spike. Regular kitchen scissors aren’t up to the job of cutting a sea urchin open. How-to-open-sea-urchin videos on YouTube, even played on a laptop perched on the dish drainer as you tackle your urchin, won’t illuminate the process. You are courting disaster if you try to use your biggest and best chef's knife. Small sea urchins may not have any roe. Even if you manage to conquer the hard urchin shell to which the spikes are attached you will make a god-awful mess — and those intoxicating little slivers of ochreish, tongue-shaped roe will still be tough to get at. If you succeed in your attempts, your roe will be covered in dark gunk.

But I persisted and, slowly, with much prising and swearing, the two largest yielded up their treasures. Then, a painstaking process to wipe away the sand, grit and other unpleasantness. It wasn’t much but certainly enough to make a little pasta dish. Tomato, lemon zest, chilli, garlic, roughly following a New York Times recipe. Divine. I wanted more. My colleague obliged. This time though, with information. He let me in on the location of his sea urchin hunting ground.

In spring, apparently the best season for sea urchin roe, I took a bag, a knife and some gardening gloves to the beach. I had discovered that, as a recreational fisherwoman (of sorts) I am allowed to take 10 sea urchins but still, I felt some need to be furtive and pulled my cap low over my eyes.

I found the spot — a place with rockpools and a wealth of promising ledges and deep crevices. I got down on my knees, I lay on my stomach, I bent over backwards, I contorted myself into a dozen yoga-ish poses to find my targets. I got wet. I also got six beautiful spiky sea urchins. I didn’t need the knife in the end: a little twist of the urchin is all that’s needed to free it from its rocky home, although I’d not like to do it without gloves.

At a distance I could see a couple with buckets and bags doing, I imagine, the same thing as I, although there seemed to be some urchin-eating happening on the spot. They were the only other foragers I could see.

Back in my kitchen, second time round, the task of extracting the urchin roe was marginally less ghastly, although the gently waving spikes of the still-alive creature were in no way helpful. The shells yielded to scissors more easily and the roe emerged more quickly. I found that holding the urchins with a layered tea towel was more effective than washing up gloves and that soaking the roe in iced water briefly helped to remove the gunk and grit. Dinner: another astonishing bowl of spaghetti.

And I remain astonished that, within a 20-odd-minute drive of the Sydney CBD, I can successfully forage for such a highly prized luxury ingredient. Next time? Sea urchin custard.

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