Fit to eat, or what? Sea urchins worth scarfing, say fans

They're the snack of choice for thousands of seagulls, and a delicacy on dinner plates in Japan, and now some local foodies say sea urchins are a treat worth trying.
Disgusting, or delicious? Local foodies say don't knock it 'til you've tried it. (The Canadian Press)

They're the snack of choice for thousands of seagulls, and a delicacy on dinner plates in Japan, and now some foodies in Newfoundland and Labrador say sea urchins are a local treat worth trying.

Just ask Roger Andrews, whose sea urchin Bavarian dish won first place at the St. John's Gold Medal Plates 2015 in November.

Andrews, who is normally in the kitchen at Relish Gourmet Burgers on Waldegrave Street, looked for something more exotic when donning his competition chef's hat.

Sea urchins fit the bill.

"No. 1, they're relatively cheap. They have a ton of flavour and there's quite a few things you can do with them that most people don't know," he said.

Chef Roger Andrews' winning entry at the St. John's Gold Medal Plates event. (CBC)

Andrews mixed up his urchins with cream, shallots, garlic and cognac to make a custard-like concoction that he could slice into bars. But he said they're good right out of the spiny shell.

"They have a strong oceany flavour, not fishy, sort of like a scallop," he said.

Andrews ordered his sea urchins from Wood-Pick Enterprises in Wareham, Bonavista Bay — $100 for three huge Styrofoam containers that netted five kilograms of roe.

Labour intensive

Wood-Pick is a pioneer when it comes to sea urchin processing in this province. It's been smashing and shucking since 1995.

Wood-Pick Enterprises employs 27 people at its plant in Wareham, Bonavista Bay. (CBC)

Owner Andrew Akerman sells to buyers in Japan, flying fresh roe out of St. John's from September to April.

He employs 27 people at his plant in Wareham, and said another 30 or so work as harvesters, divers and truckers.

The work is labour intensive.  Inshore boats take scuba divers to shallow water, where they use hand held rakes and net bags to collect the urchins.

In the plant, Akerman said it takes three days to fill a half-ton truck to go to the airport.

I thought I should at least taste it. Now, sometimes I crave it.- Andrew Akerman

Urchin roe is popular during the Japanese new year, which starts in mid-December. Akerman said the average price in November was around $6 Cdn for 100 grams.

The Japanese eat sea urchins in sushi. Akerman has tried it right out of the shell.

"It's delicious. At first I couldn't taste it, but being around it every day, I thought I should at least taste it. Now, sometimes I crave it," he said.

"I clean it, eat it raw. You can't salt or freeze it."

It's a labour intensive process to get urchin roe from the shell to your plate. (CBC)

They're not easy to find, if you're interested in a taste test.

Urchins are rarely on the menu at local restaurants, although chef Roger Andrews said that could change with recent rules that allow restaurants to buy directly from fishermen.

He shared some of his roe with Todd Perrin at Mallard Cottage, and with Cinched Bistro "to play around with," and said Jeremy Charles, co-owner of Raymonds, "uses them, for sure."

'Some taste!'

Anne Marie Gildas Heudes, who is from Miquelon, found her own way to source a few, by hunting around the rocks and seaweed at low tide.

Sea urchin sushi is popular in Japan and in western Canada, but rare on menus in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"We catch them usually in January or February cause that's when they are the fullest and freshest," she wrote in an email.

"My father-in-law Ronald was a fisherman and he used to make pâte with it. We have always eaten it raw right out of the shell (just the orange part) on a piece of fresh bread with butter and i can still taste the sweetness of it. You see when you eat it with bread and butter you get the natural taste, not imitation mixed with other ingredients, and then with a mug up of tea you get nothing but the best."

Benedict Michael Stacey wrote, "my brother mixes the roe with onions and lots of pepper and then bakes them. They are excellent."

Lancy Cheng recommends eating them with soy sauce and wasabi, or "mix with egg, then steamed. Some taste!"

Lots of people wrote to say they have tried sea urchins, after we posted a video to the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador Facebook page. (CBC)

About the Author

Marilyn Boone

CBC News

Marilyn Boone is a producer who works with the CBC bureau in St. John's.