The vast kelp forest off the California coast is dwindling at an alarming rate, which is bad news for the marine ecosystem. The reason these seaweed beds are under threat is chiefly that a particular type of sea urchin, the purple ones, have increased in numbers and these little sea creatures have an insatiable appetite for kelp.
The reason for this growth in numbers of the purple sea urchins comes down to rising sea temperatures, but also a disease that affected the sunflower sea star, the urchins’ predators.
Now a group of scientists have researched whether this purple sea urchin could become a top restaurant ingredient.
Sea urchin or uni as it is otherwise known is a highly prized ingredient in Japanese cuisine and with the current hunger for all things Asian in eateries up and down California, more and more people are learning to appreciate the deep, buttery, umami-infused flavour of the sea urchin’s heart. Usually, the uni you find in restaurants come from the black, bigger species of sea urchin. They are routinely scavenged off the coast of California already for supply to restaurants, however, the purple ones aren’t typically eaten.
We’ve seen how other countries have dealt with invasive species by putting them on the menu, so it makes perfect sense to investigate whether or not they have the right flavour profile for a chef to work with.
NPR reports how Professor Luke Gardner, together with his students from Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, with the help of Chef Justin Cogley of Aubergine, began to examine the purple sea urchins’ culinary uses.
The experiment involved transplanting 500 of the purple sea urchins to an aquaculture facility and growing them to perfect size and condition. The proof of the experiment was in the tasting, so Chef Cogley, was asked to give his learned opinion. The verdict? The chef says he’d serve it.
"Honestly, it's rich and buttery. I think this one might be a touch [cleaner], tastes a little bit cleaner," he says.
"It's a great story and everyone's trying to do their part to save the ocean, too.”