There are many different species. A Red Sea Urchin can grow up to 7 inches (18 cm) wide. Some urchins have spines that are poisonous.
The top of a Sea Urchin is round. On its flat bottom, there is a mouth with 5 teeth, and 5 pairs of tiny feet.
In general, male Sea Urchins are black; females are reddish-brown. A female Sea Urchin releases several million eggs that hatch into larvae. They take 2 to 5 years to fully grow into adults.
Those who don’t like Sea Urchin, really don’t like it. They say it tastes like soap, looks like snot and slime, and smells like a baby’s diaper. Fans counter that they have to be absolutely fresh, and when they are, they are sweet and pleasing. Connoisseurs prefer larger ones, saying they have more taste than smaller ones.
Many fans, especially in France, Greece and Italy, like the roe (eggs) that are in the female Sea Urchins. They just squirt a little lemon on it. In Italy, the roe is often mixed into a pasta dish, particularly linguine or tagliolini. In Sicily, Sea Urchin is often served raw, with the top cut off it and the inside bits still moving. It is served raw at sushi bars, too, spooned out of its shell and put on top of a square of rice.
Sea Urchin is quite expensive at restaurants. Red Sea Urchin is the most expensive; yellow is cheaper.
To prepare Sea Urchin, wear very heavy duty gloves, and have a pair of scissors handy. Use the point of the scissors to start an incision into the shell, and then cut a large circle off the top. To cut right in half, insert the point of the scissors into the mouth all the way, and cut. (You can buy special crackers to do this.)
Spoon out all the insides. You will see five tongue-like gonads. The roe is the bright orangey yellowish stuff. The other innards are the dark stuff.
The roe will come out in pieces that stay together somewhat, resembling the section of a clementine orange. If you just want the roe, then you use spoons and tweezers to separate the roe from the dark innards after you’ve scooped them out. Then, gently rinse the roe off, and pat dry with paper towel. If any spiny bits are in the roe, use tweezers to pick them out.
For pasta, it’s generally lightly sautéed with some garlic and oil for about 7 minutes.
Allow about 50 Sea Urchins per 4 people when making a sauce from the roe.
Literature & Lore
“Sea urchin caviar is packed for the first time, and utterly different. A sea urchin, in case you don’t know, is that odd little green chestnut-burrlike creature of the sea, which comes to the market in limited quantities between October and April and is seldom seen in fish markets outside Italian districts.
The Italians have for years enjoyed the urchin’s sweet roe of the delicate orange tinge. Eaters knife off the burr top, dip into the roe, and spread over fresh crusty bread, washing down bites of this fishy repast with red wine.
Rose M. Vergano, a packer of Italian antipasto items, got the idea this year of putting the sea urchin caviar into jars for year-round use and introducing it to gourmets…
No seasoning is required, according to the Italians. But, we say, add a tear of the lemon, a dash of Worcestershire, a pinch of horseradish, a dip of grated onion. Pass the hot buttered Melba and you have something grand.” — Paddleford, Clementine (1898 – 1967). Food Flashes Column. Gourmet Magazine. October 1950.
The Italian name, “Riccio al mare”, means “Sea hedgehog”. Sea Urchin is called “wana” in Hawaii.
Capella, Anthony. Where to eat sea urchin in Italy. London: The Times. 22 February 2009.