A few weeks ago I saw a laundry detergent labeled “ocean scented” and it struck me as odd. Is there really a market for people who want their cloths to smell like they just washed up on shore, still permeated with the stench of sea lions, decaying kelp, fetid tidal pools and sea gull nests? In reality, for as much as I love the ocean, the aroma can rarely be described as pleasant….. and in a circuitous way, that brings me to sea urchin.
Much like truffles, sea urchin is a flavor that people either love or hate. Eating sea urchin is a cerebral experience. The enjoyment that comes from eating urchin is not the same unctuous experience as eating a cheeseburger, but rather a memory trigger that takes your mind to a specific location. A perfect piece of urchin will transport you to the very edge of the ocean, where you can hear the surf and breath in the sea mist. Unfortunately, most people experience urchin in a sushi bar where they hold their breath and suck it down with a halfhearted chew as their friends watch their distraught expression. The texture is acquired and the flavor is subjective, but the trick to enjoying it is in how you eat it. To start, keep your mouth slightly open when you taste the urchin, this allows air to move in through your mouth and into your nasal passage (a.k.a. retronasal olfaction). This is important because different parts of your brain are stimulated depending on how a scent is physically obtained, so the same object can be perceived differently when sniffed with your nose or “inhaled” through your mouth. Relaxing and allowing the aroma of the sea urchin to enter the nasal passage is the only way to experience the urchin’s true flavor. I enjoy fresh urchin, not for its flavor per se, but rather for the strong images it evokes.
Sea Urchin, like many ingredients, should only be enjoyed when extremely fresh. I prefer to get live urchins from Santa Barbara and clean them to order. A very fresh urchin retains a level of sweetness and has a more subtle aroma than the more common urchin sold pre-cleaned on trays. Last night we simply sautéed the fresh urchin with olive oil, espelette pepper, garlic and meyer lemon. This is the perfect condiment for a piece of crusty house-made baguette.