In winter and early spring, we go to the mountains to gather wild edibles: horta, asparagus and the bulb of the wild tassel hyacinth. But during the hot days of summer, our foraging instincts take us to the sea. There we don our snorkels and masks to stalk a creature that clings to the rocky sea floor. Spiny and globular like a maritime hedgehog, it is the ubiquitous–and delicious–sea urchin.
Yesterday my children and I went foraging for sea urchins in a tiny bay just south of here. Jasper and Sylvie still refuse to eat the creatures, but will enthusiastically help to gather them. As a child about my daughter’s age, I did both the gathering and the eating, and with enthusiasm. My love for the invertebrate began one hot summer day in 1977 on Spetses, the Saronic Gulf island my mother and I called home off and on for many years. As we often did then, we had assembled with friends for a late afternoon picnic on an isolated beach on the island’s far side. Out of the blue, one of our company, Adonis, handed me a garden glove. Wearing its mate, he dove into the water. Curious, I put on my snorkel and mask–and the glove–and swam after him, crossing to a promontory where, beneath the water’s surface, the rocks were covered with sea urchins. At first glance, the creatures appeared to be black, and some were, but a closer look revealed that many were dark shades of various colors–purple, blue, green, red, and brown.
I watched as Adonis floated in the water eyeing the display beneath us. And then he dove. To my amazement, he began to pluck the urchins discriminately from the rocks, depositing them into a zipper-topped tote bag he had looped around his arm. After a little while, he surfaced and gave me instructions: I was to help, I was only to remove those urchins with debris attached to their needles–rocks, bits of seaweed, tiny crustaceans–and I was to avoid the black ones.
Together we moved through the water, modern-day hunter-gatherers, for we would eat these beautiful creatures whose gently waving needles had inflicted such pain in my foot as I’d climbed onto the cement pier at the town beach just a few days before. But this was not revenge. Adonis promised me, the urchins tasted divine.
And they did. Once we’d harvested enough for each person to eat a few, we returned to our picnic spot. There, Adonis chose a dark blue urchin from our harvest and, using a fork, carved a circle around its underside. Lifting the resulting lid, he revealed a tiny pool filled with sea water and partially-digested seaweed. This he poured into the sea and then he presented his prize–its spines still waving–to me.
I was to scoop out the bright orange stuff within and eat it, he instructed.
At first, I balked. We had just moved to Greece. My ten-year-old palate, which favored Kraft macaroni and cheese, steak, artichokes and chocolate, hadn’t exactly broadened yet. “Ela, poulaki mou.” (Come on, my little bird.) “Just try it,” he coaxed. I loved Adonis, and so I resolved to do my best. Using my index finger to scrape out the innards, I closed my eyes and plopped it into my mouth. Salty and pungent, creamy and sweet. The flavors were incredible, like eating the sea–my favorite habitat then and now.
I’ve been hooked ever since.
Today I endeavor to share this joy with my children. If not the eating, then the gathering because in this sea with its clear, clean waters, its silky layers of turquoise and blue, its dwindling but beautiful sea life, the gathering of them is a joy. Just as it is a joy to watch my children as they help to gather, swimming confidently (their snorkels and masks now extensions of their anatomies), crossing the deepest part of the bay (my daughter holding my hand as we swim because, yes, it is very deep–so deep one can only see blue, not the sea floor), approaching the spiny creatures on their rocky home, a precipice that drops to the bottom of the bay, and confidently plucking them, like spiny flowers, from the rocks with their little gloved hands.
Sea urchins are not only tasty, they’re interesting. I had no idea, for example, that they have teeth–five of them, which they use to feed and to bore hiding places into rocks along the shoreline. In addition to its spines and teeth, the urchin has tiny adhesive tube feet, which it uses to grip the rocky surfaces of the shoreline and sea floor and to pick up seaweed, small rocks, and bits of shell. The urchin is a cousin, of sorts, to the starfish and the sand dollar as they are all members of the echinoderm phylum.
There are about 700 different species of sea urchins around the world. Here in Greece, the most common are Paracentrotus lividus and Arbacia lixula. What are we eating when we eat sea urchin? Not the roe, as Adonis politely suggested, but the reproductive organs, or gonads, also referred to as “corals.”
Greeks and their neighbors around the Mediterranean have enjoyed sea urchins for millennia. Aristotle described them more than 2,000 years ago, and the Greek scholar, Athenaeus, mentioned them in his fifteen-book work, The Deipnosophistae, or The Banquet of the Learned, in which the protagonist, Ulpian, is the host of a long, leisurely supper throughout which literary and historical conversations course. The ancient Greek poet Archippus discussed sea urchins in his play, Fishes, in which he satirized the Athenian epicures’ fondness for fish, and he included this recipe as a sauce to top the corals:
- 1 tbsp honey
- 3 tbsp vinegar
- 1 tbsp mint
- 1 tbsp parsley
Dissolve the honey into the vinegar. Chop the mint and parsley and mix with the honey and vinegar.
In Italy, I have eaten pasta tossed with a pesto-like sauce made with ricci. Here in Greece, sea urchins are known as ahinos (Αχινός) and are a permissible indulgence during the Lenten fast. In addition to being eaten on the spot, urchins are often served in a dish called ahinosalata, a meze of olive oil, lemon juice and sea-urchin.
The creatures’ innards are considered a delicacy in other parts of the world, too. They’re especially popular in Japan, where they are known as uni. Alaska Natives call orange stuff uutuk and eat it with gusto.
This morning I read that the Catalan painter, Salvador Dali, had a great fondness for sea urchins. To artists seeking inspiration, he advised that they gather three dozen urchins on one of the two days preceding a full moon. This, he wrote in his book 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship, is when they are at the peak of their “sedative and narcotic virtues.” After eating the 36 urchins for lunch, he recommended, take a deep nap. Wake in the late afternoon and sit in front of a blank canvas until the sun sets and it’s too dark to see.
To open fresh sea urchins, my significant other, Vincenzo, carries in his boat a handy gadget from Italy, which neatly slices off the bottom.
After that, we rinse them in the sea, removing the sea water and debris within (although some prefer to slurp this concoction like a shot), and then we eat them on the spot.
If you’re preparing sea urchins from scratch, take a look at this blog for a beautifully illustrated guide to cleaning the creatures. Urchins can be bought whole at some fresh seafood vendors and farmers markets around the world. Sea urchin “roe” can be purchased from specialty food shops. (For those of you in North America, this guide from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s terrific Seafood Watch program will point you to the most sustainable sources for sea urchins.)
How to Eat a Sea Urchin
- Don your garden gloves.
- Using a stout pair of scissors, cut into the mouth on the sea urchin’s bottom and then continue to cut around the shell until you can remove the resulting lid.
- Pour out (or drink) the insides.
- Attached to the shell’s top side will be five symmetrical strips of bright orange roe. Using a spoon, a knife, or a finger, scoop the roe from within and eat it raw. Some add a drop or two of lemon juice and olive oil. Others prefer their urchin straight.
Pairs beautifully with ouzo or, if you’re feeling especially indulgent, champagne.