Uni is sometimes referred to as the roe of the Sea Urchin but is actually the gonads of the creature and can produce roe or milt (semen). It is a delicacy in Japanese cuisine but it is seasonal, and not always easy to obtain, so one frequently sees it on the menus of Japanese restaurants only to find, on ordering, that it is not currently available. I came across some recently at Wasabi in Ottawa’s Bytown market, where they were available as a sushi selection, or as a sashimi preparation served, as you see above, in little cucumber cups. Each cup held four or five individual gonads and you can see an individual piece in the inset.
The texture of uni is not for everybody. It is very soft, with a silky mouthfeel and is rather like the white of a soft-boiled egg, or, perhaps, a very firm custard. When tasted, without any sort of additions, it is very reminiscent of the tomalley, or liver, of a lobster. Some would say it has a fishy taste, but I rather think of it has having a generic ‘sea flavor’ coupled with a distinct sweetness. Tomalley can also have an underlying faintly musky pungency but, with uni, it is sweet all the way through except at the very end where a similar pungency comes across as an almost bitter aftertaste. It is brief however, and does not really affect the overall pleasure of the taste at all.
In this preparation, the uni was served with a wedge of lemon, a small mound of wasabi (hidden behind the inset in the above picture), and a little dish for soy sauce. I tried soy first and, while it was pleasant, I found that the sweetness of the soy masked the delicate sweetness of the uni, thus robbing it of some of its impact. The lemon was an even worse choice as, not only did the acid mask much of the good flavor, it also made the final bitter quality more pronounced and I am surprised that anybody thought that this would be a good accompaniment. As for the wasabi, however, this worked really well. Despite the sharp, intense power of the root, it didn’t mask any of the sweetness at all and really complimented it nicely. I should like to try the delicacy in a sushi preparation sometime, but the sashimi along with just a little wasabi is terrific.