Sea urchins usually appear quite dangerous with their long spines, but surprisingly many cultures eat sea urchins, and they’re even considered a delicacy in some countries.
Hundreds of species of sea urchins live in the world’s oceans, and they’re found all over the place, from shallow areas near the beach to depths of 16,000 feet.
Notably, some sea urchins possess deadly venom and may inject toxins into those who choose to attack them. They grow long spines to protect themselves against eels, which like to feed on them.
The question many people invariably have is: why would anyone want to eat a venomous creature? And more importantly, what do sea urchins taste like?
Can You Eat Sea Urchins?
Despite their spiny appearance and venomous nature, yes, sea urchins are edible. They’re popular as food in countries like Chile and Japan, as well as throughout the Mediterranean.
They’ve grown in popularity in recent years in restaurants along the West Coast of the United States, and they’ve become a more mainstream type of food.
An article on sea urchins from MasterClass, an educational website, indicates that around 80 percent of the sea urchins consumed around the world by humans are eaten in Japan.
Humans aren’t the only predators of sea urchins, however. They’re also considered a fine feast by birds, lobsters, and even sea otters.
Not surprisingly, the spines of a sea urchin aren’t edible. Not only do the spines contain toxins, but they don’t have any nutritional value or beneficial taste. The parts of the sea urchin that are edible by humans are the gonads, which are the reproductive organs of the sea urchin.
What Do Sea Urchins Taste Like?
Sea urchins taste like a combination of salt and sugar. Fans have called their taste an “umami-salty sweetness” due to the composition of their flesh. As with many animals in the ocean, sea urchins often taste a little like the water in which they live, much like an oyster, clam, or conch.
They usually feed on seaweed, kelp, and algae, so they can exhibit those tastes. However, sea urchins don’t taste exactly like seaweed or algae. Rather, properly prepared sea urchins should present a complex flavor and a smooth, buttery texture.
Some foods that often taste similar to sea urchins include eggs, fish roe, and foie gras, as well as lobster and crab. Sea urchins have sometimes been described as briny, which is reminiscent of many types of seafood. The taste of sea urchins is also occasionally compared to mild caviar.
Are Sea Urchins Healthy to Eat?
Like most edible animals, sea urchins offer a range of micronutrients that are valuable for the human body. The most notable nutrient in sea urchins is Omega-3 fatty acids, which humans often get from eating fish oil.
Sea urchins also contain vitamin A and vitamin C, which are both valuable for the human body since they benefit organ function, the immune system, and blood pressure. Further, sea urchins are low in calories yet high in protein, which means they are an acceptable part of a healthy diet.
They’re also very low in fat, so they’re helpful when adhering to a low-fat diet as recommended by groups and organizations like the National Institutes of Health and the American Cancer Society.
Is a Sea Urchin Poisonous to Humans?
The spines on a sea urchin are meant to act as a layer of protection against attackers, and getting poked by a sea urchin’s venomous spines can result in some serious health consequences.
The most dangerous sea urchin in the world is the flower sea urchin, which has a toxin that can cause acute pain, breathing problems, and paralysis in some victims.
Some sea urchins are poisonous but still edible as long as they’re opened carefully. Sea urchin varieties in red, green, and purple colors aren’t harmful when eaten, but it’s important that care is taken during the preparation and cooking of the animal.
Interestingly, most of the deaths associated with sea urchins don’t occur when the animals are eaten but rather when humans attempt to harvest sea urchins from the ocean floor.
It’s essential to obtain treatment quickly when the skin is punctured by a sea urchin because the open wound may become infected without swift cleaning.
How Do You Prepare and Cook a Sea Urchin to Eat?
Anyone can prepare and cook a sea urchin, and the process requires just a little finesse. If you decide to prepare a sea urchin at home rather than ordering it in a restaurant, you’ll likely buy it while it’s still alive because sea urchins decay quite quickly after they die. Smell the sea urchin before you purchase it; a foul-smelling sea urchin isn’t fresh.
The first step in preparing a sea urchin is putting a pair of gloves on to avoid the venomous spines. The second step requires turning the urchin on its top and using a pair of scissors to cut around the base. Then, the urchin is drained of seawater until the colored “tongues” are visible and removable.
The tongues are the gonads of the animal and are the only edible portion. If the gonads appear brown, the sea urchin is spoiled.
Once removed, the gonads are washed twice in a bath of saltwater and checked to make sure they’re completely clean.
Sea urchins are normally consumed raw, so it’s not necessary to cook anything once the edible portion of the sea urchin is out of the animal’s shell and clean.
Is it Controversial to Eat Sea Urchins?
There are very few truly controversial aspects about eating sea urchins, but they are a vital part of the marine habitat, and care should be taken to maintain a healthy population.
As with any animal eaten for food, sea urchins are part of a large habitat of predators and prey, and it’s important to the oceans to keep their populations at the right level.
Humans can help sustain and maintain the health of the oceans by eating only as many sea urchins as is necessary while making sure that populations aren’t brought too low or allowed to grow too much.
Sea urchins can actually decimate a kelp forest, and maintaining proper sea urchin levels is vital for maintaining a balanced ecosystem.
Unless you’re planning to dive to find your own sea urchins, consider purchasing your sea urchins from a company that maintains sustainable fishing practices.
When fished sustainably, there is no bycatch from plucking sea urchins out of the water, unlike the fishing done with nets, which kills countless animals like dolphins that aren’t even intended for a dinner plate.
What Do Sea Urchins Taste Like FAQs
Do sea urchins taste good?
Sea urchins may taste good to anyone who enjoys delicacies like foie gras, lobster, or caviar due to frequent comparisons between those foods and sea urchin sushi. Taste is always subjective, however, and anyone who is culinarily adventurous should consider trying sea urchin.
Is sea urchin poisonous to eat?
The gonads of the sea urchin, which is the part of the animal that humans consume, are not poisonous. However, the spines can cause significant harm when they pierce the skin, and the sea urchin’s venom enters the body. When prepared appropriately, sea urchins are not poisonous and are safe to eat.
How do you eat a sea urchin?
Sea urchin is commonly consumed raw as sushi and wrapped in seaweed with sushi rice. Sea urchin sushi is often eaten with pickled ginger or wasabi. Sometimes, sea urchin is prepared with lemon juice or butter, which some say enhances the sea urchin’s natural flavor. Alternatively, sea urchin is also eaten cooked, and some dishes call for a velvety sea urchin puree. However, the primary method of consuming sea urchins is raw in sushi form.
Why is sea urchin so bitter?
Bitter sea urchin is a sign that the animal has begun to decay and that it wasn’t eaten soon enough after being harvested. Old sea urchins can taste unpleasant and bitter and may even smell like ammonia. Further, the texture may become slimy with age. The best way to avoid bitter sea urchins is to carefully and always select fresh sea urchins.
How can you tell if a sea urchin is edible?
Pitch black sea urchins aren’t considered edible. Rather, sea urchins in colors like red, green, and purple are the type successfully harvested and eaten by humans. There are more than 700 species of sea urchins around the world, and many are edible. Edible sea urchins also have little things attached to them, like shells, rocks, or small pieces of seaweed.
What is sea urchin called in Japan?
The people of Japan love eating sea urchins, and they refer to the edible parts of the sea urchin as “uni.” This name is used by many sea urchin fans around the world, particularly in the culinary industry. Chefs will commonly refer to sea urchins as uni when preparing them.