This piece won second prize in this year’s Doreen G. Fernandez Food Writing Award. Founded in 2002, the competition is dedicated to the memory of the eminent food anthropologist Doreen Fernandez who wrote books and many articles about food during her lifetime. The competition is the first of its kind in the country, and aims “to inspire research into Philippine culinary culture and sustaining a pool of increasing new talents in food literature and journalism.” This year’s theme is “shellfish.”
Whoever first ventured beyond the sea urchin’s fearsome spines was undoubtedly bold. A female most likely, because prehistorically, women foraged close to shore, as Maori women and Korean female divers (haenyeo) still do.
Sea urchins have been eaten for millennia, attested by shells in Neolithic Korean and Japanese middens and Herculaneum kitchen ruins from 400 AD. As a child I thought it an exclusively Ilocano predilection — maritangtang in its shell grilled over embers, its briny sweetness tempered subtly by smoke.
Re-encountering it during student days in 1970s Tokyo as sophisticated uni was an epiphany: elegantly black-caped in gunkan (small ball of rice wrapped in a thin band of dry seaweed and topped with various ingredients) and temaki (cone-shaped sushi), aesthetically arrayed petal-like in sashimi. To eat uni ever since is to remember childhood and summer picnics by the sea, my mother spooning her favorite maritangtang to my lips.
The Philippines is the “epicenter of echinoid biodiversity,” harboring almost a quarter of the world’s 950 sea urchin species. At least six local species are recorded edible — short-spined Tripneustes, Pseudoboletia, Toxopneustes; long-spined Diadema, Echinothrix; and pencil-spined Heterocentrotus. The most commonly eaten is Tripneustes gratilla, variously called maritangtang, kuden-kuden, suwaki, or tehetehe.
Aquacultured in Pangasinan, kuden-kuden are exported live to Japan, but Ilocos maritangtang cater entirely for local demand. International demand is highest for large-lobed red, green, and purple species. Chilean red, Loxechinus albus, and North American red, Strongylocentrotus species, provide over half the world’s supply. (Frozen Chilean uni are mostly destined for conveyor-belt sushi.) Japan consumes 90 percent of world exports, followed by France, although Japanese gourmets prefer locally sourced uni.
What we eat are actually the gonads (reproductive organs), five per shell, genteelly called roe or coral, which doubly function as food storage. Nutritive cells transfer nutrients to produce sperm or eggs, released into the sea at spawning. Post-spawning, uni deteriorates: color becomes pale or brown, its texture watery, its taste markedly bitter.
The perfect season for eating is one to two months before spawning, when increasing nutrients enlarge the gonads, firm up texture, and deepen color. Hues from red-orange to burnt sienna in females, bright yellow in males, are imparted by ß-carotenoids from their diet of seagrass and macroalgae. Minute amounts of anandamide, an endocannabinoid, may hold the secret to uni’s addictive nature. Deeper color makes female flavor more intense; but alas, there are no external clues to gender.
Uni’s exquisite taste is the sea distilled — savory, slightly bitter, with a lingering creamy sweetness. Amino acids create this complexity: sweetness from glycine and alanine, savoriness (umami) from glutamic acid, bitterness from methionine and valine. Fatty acids and proteins provide the creamy mouthfeel. Aficionados insist on uni in their natural state, alum-free. (Most commercial uni are processed with alum, leaving an unpleasant aftertaste.) Purists eschew nori, lemon juice, calamansi, and metal spoons.
Grilled briefly and served on the shell, garnished with ar-arosep grape-like seaweeds (Caulerpa lentillifera), or shelled and brined as tinilnak, is how Ilocanos enjoy maritangtang. No celebration is without it. Since 2017, Maritangtang Festivals have sprung up throughout Ilocos coastal towns, spurring chefs to create innovative dishes, such as tuna steaks with maritangtang sauce.
In Mindoro, tirek is sautéed with garlic and shallots, and thickened with coconut cream to braise malunggay(Moringa oleifera) and other vegetables. In Sabah, the Sama-Bajaus and Tausugs stuff glutinous rice and coconut cream into the empty shell (roes intact) for steaming oku-oku or ketupat tehetehe. French chefs add oursins, with their internal coelomic fluids, to oursinade sauces and soups, or fold them into omelets or béchamel for gratins. Italians prepare ricci di mare as an extravagant sauce over pasta. Uni are fermented with alcohol and condiments in China and Japan, and have been made into bagoong and savory ice cream.
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In Japan, salt-preserved Echizen uni is served with sake. The French opt for white or rosé wine. In Spain, cider is traditional with oricios in Asturias, and young Garnacha or cava is customary in Catalonia with eriçons de mar.
Beyond gastronomy, the sea urchin is invaluable for research into marine ecological resilience and human health. Sea urchins are crucial for coral reef ecosystem health. Certain species survive beyond a century, a longevity attributed to complex immune and sensory systems, whose functions may elucidate novel therapies for human neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. A rainbow of pigments and bioactive compounds in the shell, spines, and gonads are being investigated to treat tumors and metabolic and inflammatory diseases, as Chinese traditional medicine has long recognized.
Aesthetically, the shell (properly called “test”), with its pentaradial symmetry, is a marvel. Its geometric precision obsessed Salvador Dalí, figuring often in his paintings, building designs, and writing. “To see inside a sea urchin’s shell,” wrote Dalí, “is to behold one of the most beautiful of natural domes given to any human to contemplate.”
An extraordinary creature indeed!
About the author: Jeanne Jacob-Ashkenazi is a researcher and writer on food culture. Her latest book, Food Cultures of Japan, is published by Greenwood Press in its Global Kitchen series. She grows Japanese herbs and vegetables, and is regenerating an olive grove with subtropical fruits (feijoa, guava, Japanese pear, mulberry) in Valencia, Spain. She won two prizes at the DGF Award 2020—second and third place.