It's hard not to get a little excited about the prospect. Uni -- the sex organs of sea urchins -- may be one of the most delicious things you can encounter at the sushi bar, provided it's fresh. It offers a creamy, briny flavor that's rich and satiating, and a gorgeous orange color that pops against the dark seaweed it's served in. If you're not into uni on its own, try it with pasta. Its decadence enriches sauces that luxuriously cling to noodles, and you'll find yourself mopping your plate clean with bread
Too bad it's so expensive, and potentially over-fished. Too bad someone can't invent an uni tree, either.
Or has someone already?
It's a food lover's paradox. Aquaculture gives us an ability to enjoy certain fish and shellfish that we might not otherwise. Population issues, adverse impacts of harvesting and high costs lead some to look for alternative sources. Cultivating these animals might seem like the answer to some of these problems, but only if you externalize the costs of raising the fish. Habitat destruction, pest propagation and other impacts have some environmentalists turning up their noses.
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Discerning diners are skeptical, too. Farm-raised catfish can have a soft and mealy texture, and farm-raised shrimp cam taste metallic. Most of these products taste a little bit lifeless, especially compared to their wild counterparts. Could uni be different?
NPR ran a story last week on Stephan Watts, the University of Alabama biology professor working on methods for farming sea urchins. Watts has been growing the spiny creatures in his lab for nearly 20 years as a way to address over-harvesting. He's spent some of that time testing different feeds, and he thinks he's developed some urchin chow that will reduce his need for the kelp that sea urchins usually eat. (Everything's endangered.)
For flavor-testing, Watts brought on Chris Hastings, a James Beard award-winning chef. Hastings endorses the urchin, giving Watts the motivation to take his product to the market. Farm-raised uni could be coming to a sushi bar near you.
It's likely a ways off -- Watts is still looking for investors to get his product out of his lab and into your belly -- but it's hard not to picture the possibilities. If enough farmers can produce sea urchin that tastes as good as the wild product, we all might be enjoying a lot more uni. And what if the new product gave chef incentive to look for new ways to use uni. Are you getting hungry yet?