Sea Urchins: An Aphrodisiac I’ll Stay Away From

This is an article I originally wrote for Xpress Magazine all about sea urchin, more commonly known as Uni, it’s history as an aphrodisiac, and my experiences with it.

I hope you enjoy!

Forget chocolate covered strawberries, champagne, and oysters the next time love, or lust, is in the air – there’s a new aphrodisiac in town. Well, maybe not so new, more so under represented as such.

Sea Urchin, or Uni, has been used to inspire desire for centuries. Considering the part that’s eaten is in fact the sex glands of the urchin, it’s not surprising the effects carry over.

It is certainly not hard to believe that the art of seduction has been on the brain since, well, pretty much the beginning of time. The term aphrodisiac is derived from the Greek goddess of love and sexuality, Aphrodite. Over the years various outlandish items have been proclaimed to be the best in putting love seekers in the mood. In ancient days, starfish, dried human marrow, and menstrual blood were the hottest on the market. Later it was a drink that contained gold – perhaps that’s where Goldschläger got the idea. The list goes on with Uni being introduced only a few hundred years ago.

Despite the fact that it is a popular ingredient in many Japanese and Mediterranean dishes, this spiny fellow is extremely hard to track down in the city. A cashier at one of the Asian fish markets in the Sunset scoffs when she says, “That’s a Japanese thing.” Duly noted; they are a bit more accessible in Japantown, though at a steep price – expect to pay five dollars for one urchin, which may not seem too bad until considering that one urchin only yields five “steaks” the size of a chubby pinky finger.

“Sea Urchins have been established as an Asian dish with status because it’s a little pricey,” says Kai Chen, a waiter at All Season Sushi in the Castro.

If sex is still on the brain after shelling out about twenty dollars to get enough meat for two lovers to indulge in, then cracking them open is the next step. With a sharp pair of scissors and determination, cutting the bottom off the urchin is not a big deal, unless they are still alive. As soon as the scissors pierce their shell their spines go wild, moving faster than expected and elevating the threat of getting poked. Even after severing them into two separate pieces they still move with a vengeance. Running them under hot water should do the trick in finally sending them to a watery grave.

Now take a look at the half of the urchin with the meat, this is supposed to subconsciously put one in the mood because it should be reminiscent of the female sex organ. Consciously though, it looks like a massacred shell with orange colored meat lining. It may only look like female lady parts in an extremely abstract, not literal sense – that’s for sure. And that smell; once the shell has been punctured get ready for a pungent salt-tinged liquid to come streaming out into, hopefully, the sink.

The taste is at best, acquired. Though the texture is smooth and creamy, the flavor could be compared to what the bottom of the San Francisco Bay would taste like if licked. There is an inexplicable briny flavor to it, a deep bottom of the ocean flavor that to some may be enjoyable, but to others extremely off-putting.

Here the roe has been strained out to incorporate into a cream sauce

After a memorable experience a few years ago, sushi lover Lindsay Mayott has made a point to never let Uni touch her lips again. She’s not buying the hype that has surrounded sea urchin.

“It may be a delicacy, but there is nothing delicate about the taste,” says Mayott, 26, as she wrinkles her nose. “The texture reminds me of that goo toy from the ‘90’s ‘Nickelodeon Gak,’ basically it’s like eating someone else’s boogers.”

So after all this, what makes it an ingredient associated with increased sexual ability?

“Sea urchin is a dish that someone will order again and again because it’s an aphrodisiac,” Chen, 33, elaborates. “Not only that but its exotic and nutritious.”

The fundamental problem with aphrodisiacs is that there is little proof to back it up.  However, broken down, at the very least these little guys pack quite the nutritional punch with their high levels of vitamins A, B1, B2, D, E, zinc, and antioxidants and it is these vitamins that help encourage sexual activity, especially when used in conjunction. Each vitamin serves a part to create an extra memorable sexual experience, vitamin E promotes increased blood flow throughout your body and is needed for optimum endurance and stamina; vitamin B helps turn carbohydrates into the energy essential for prosperous sexual activity; vitamin A, and E for that matter, are antioxidants which fight off the free radicals that cause sexual dysfunction in men and some women; lastly increased levels of zinc in the body boosts concentration and sex drive. All of these vitamins in just a little sea urchin steak. Plus, as mentioned before, the visual look of it should keep the brain fixated on what’s to come after the dishes have been cleared.

Chen laughs as he looks around the restaurant as he says, “I’ll have to pay attention to new lovers who try Uni and then come back for more.”

See Food (Seafood)/The Cliff House Review

Now as some of you may know as of late, I have been trying to become more acquainted with the creatures of the sea. No, not Ariel and the rest of the gang – though that would be awesome too. I feel like fish is one of those taboo items that has only more recently been accepted into mainstream cuisine.

Growing up, fish was not a main staple around the house. I think the fanciest we got was cooking some Orange Roughy and drowning it in lemon juice. For those of you not aware, Orange Roughy is an extremely mild fish – void of that “fishy” flavor that is a turn off for some.

It wasn’t even until the 7th grade that I tried my first piece of sushi. I remember it well, my tutor took me to a restaurant, Revolving Sushi, after I had gotten an A on a math test. I ordered a safer roll, the Philadelphia Roll – I know, going crazy with some raw salmon and cream cheese.

Since then, I have made a point to get try as much sushi as I can. After trying a lot of the different rolls I must admit that I favor baked rolls or at least a roll with a sauce. Whether this makes me a fake sushi lover I know not, just trying to be honest.

So while these types of rolls are lovely at times, and I certainly make an effort to incorporate them into any sushi feast…

And the sauce on this roll was sooooo good…

Rolls like this are really more my style

Yes, there are actual rolls under there. They are just covered with more fish, smothered in sauce and then baked to perfection. This thing DEFINITELY required chop sticks. And a level of mastery with chop sticks at that.

Another kind of seafood meal I like is the bento box. Traditionally a Japanese lunch box of sorts full of compartments for different components of your meal. They are aesthetically pleasing and allow you to prevent sauces and flavors from meshing on the plate.

Got this lovely little box for about 7 dollars at a sushi joint in Oakland.

I have even tried cooking fish more myself, as evidenced by some of my previous blog posts (Shrimp, Dover Sole), and those yet to come (Salmon, Mussels).

Earlier this week, after a particularity stressful day at school, Matt and I went on a little adventure down to the Sutro Bath House ruins.

We went all around, climbing through caves

Studying the little waterfalls

And scouting out for sailors lost at sea.

After a few hours of exploring we were a little starved. We already had some homemade chili waiting at his house for us but needed a little pick-me-up. The famous restaurant, The Cliff House, was calling our name. Not gonna lie though, it’s one of those fancy restaurants where you should probably wear a tie and heels – accessories not meant for the same person. We felt a little under dressed walking in wearing sweatshirts, jeans, and obviously rocking some seriously windblown hair. Whatever. The hostess seemed to think it was cute. (Hope they didn’t see us climbing up the side of the mountain to get there).

After surveying the menu, we agreed that seafood was the best choice. We were at the beach for Christ’s sake.

We wanted to try a few things, so an order of Clams and an order of Oysters were just the things we were lookin’ for.

Steamed clams in a white wine based garlic-thyme sauce. Surprised at the generous portions – I mean this is a pretty upscale place and usually the more expensive the meal the less food you get.

The flavors were pretty wonderful, smooth and a little tangy, until CRUNCH. Discovered a few grains of sand in my clam. As far as texture goes, I don’t think anything is worse they feeling sand in your teeth. My parents always taught me that I should always try things and if I didn’t like it I could spit it out. That’s pretty much exactly what I did.

I straight up stuck my fingers in my mouth and yanked out a half mangled piece of clam. Pretty sure a few other patrons saw me – I didn’t even care. I am sad to say it wasn’t an isolated experience. At least 4 clams had sand. Not sure if that was a half-assed cleaning job on the chefs part or how to circumvent that myself, either way I chewed my clams with skepticism afterward though.

I will eat them again, no doubt, ’cause their sweet taste really is excellent.

Next up were the oysters. It was our first time eating them and based on their price at the grocery store (about 1.74 per oyster), I was expecting pure ecstasy in the form of raw shellfish.

Oysters in a half shell with a marinara-horseradish sauce and fresh lemon wedges.

Looks good, right?

Well, I don’t really see what all the fuss is about. Personally didn’t think they were all that amazing. They were slimy, had a weird flavor, and felt a little like what I imagine a cold snot ball sliding down my throat would feel like, since chewing it didn’t break it into pieces. Oh and I found a piece of shell wedged in one of the folds. The sauce was nice and spicy though.

Maybe oysters are meant for a more refined pallet, not fit for the flavor repertoire of a girl who consideres Nutella out of the jar to be one of her favorite desserts.

I think I will try them again just to be sure.

Not so sure I want to eat at the Cliff House again though. Yes, they are a fancy enough restaurant that they brought out some wonderful warm sourdough bread for us to munch on while we waited and then to use to soak up the clam sauce. However, upon adjusting the white cloth napkin (after already taking a bite of the bread) Matt found a curly, blond hair in the basket. Neither of us are blond, let alone have curly hair.

I am hoping, and praying, that the employees wash their hair regularly.