Tuesday, 2 March 2021

From Ritsa to Uni: a Sea Urchin Story

Sea Urchin: Flowergarden.noaa.gov (top left), FoodRepublic.com (top right), Nofima: Sciencenorway.no (middle), Wikipedia (bottom left/right)
I have been meaning to write about this topic for quite a while and somehow it kept slipping through. So here it is. 

I first came to know what ‘ritsa’ ( ريتسا ) is from my childhood on the Mediterranean beaches of Alexandria. More formally known as ( قنفذ البحر ) or hedgehog of the sea, they were sold by vendors along with clams as well as sugary treats like ‘fresca’ and other snacks. 

As a 3-4 year old kid, they terrified me. Why? Most likely due to their hostile and dark spiky appearance. Also, because people would often step on them, which was a heck of an unpleasant experience to say the least. 

If you never stepped on a sea urchin before, let me tell you that it’s somewhat horrible as the pain can be excruciating. While sometimes we are able to extract the spines by ourselves, probably using a tweezer, others have to go to doctors or even hospitals for help. The round shape and the abundance of spines make it almost a certainty that you get stung by more than a few. In some cases they cannot be taken out as they brake off inside the skin, then one has to carry on living with them planted deep inside their soles or heels — or anywhere else throughout the body — where they dissolve with time. Vinegar expedites the process; a reason why it is advised to first soak the affected area in vinegar before trying to remove the spines.
As such, younger me has never ever eaten ritsa on any beach. Actually I wouldn’t even come close to whoever would be eating them. Not that many in my surrounding did anyway. So I never really knew how people managed to do it with all these scary spines around the core — shell. How childish.

 Let alone know what the edible part looks like.

I do remember that my first injury came a bit later in Hurghada on the Red Sea when snorkelling was an enjoyable activity for my then 8-9 year old self. But I was relatively fine. I mean, I took it like a man until we got the spines out. Still by then I had never tried consuming them. 

Then many years passed by during which ritsa became a distant childhood memory… until I began getting into sushi. For a few years in North America I dropped the meats completely out of my diet while occasionally indulging in seafood and sushi. I was in my mid 30s when sushi became sort of a drug I use as a reward system to hack into my own brain. Naturally, I’ve become sort of a connoisseur.
Starting in Toronto then later in L.A, I began coming across one type of Nigiri sushi which left my taste buds in utter ecstasy: Uni in Japanese, or Sea Urchin Roe in English. It is a light brown paste which is usually one of the most expensive Nigiris. If a single salmon/tuna/crab costs $3, Uni would be about $5-6. I once asked an Asian chef about the reason behind the price. To which he said it takes a whole animal to make a single Nigiri portion. 

Note that by then I still had not made the connection between this yummy paste and the spiky ritsa from my childhood in Alexandria and Hurghada. As mentioned earlier, I had never even seen it. Then one day I decided to Google ‘sea urchin’, and Lo and Behold: A variety of images of good ol
dear ritsa came onto the screen. Ah, You! 

Uni, Tobiko, Ikura by Omar Cherif at Sushi Raw, North Hills Shopping Center, S.F Valley, CA
Delicious sea urchin roe or Uni (bottom right), flying fish roe or Tobiko (bottom left),
then the 4 salmon roe or Ikura

The above photo was taken at Sushi Raw in San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles where I would go whenever spending few days at my aunt. You see, sushi prices in Venice Beach, or the Westside in general, are a tad too much for this Bohemian artist. So I would take advantage of being in The Valley and go enjoy some hot sake along with this filling and fulfilling meal.

Ironically, one of the very few things I feared as a kid turned out to be one of the tastiest delicacies my adult self would enjoy. A reminder of the quote: Everything you’ve ever wanted is sitting on the other side of fear.

With that being said, and before we proceed, I now feel compelled to add that back in 2014 I was one night harassed by cops on the way back from dining at Sushi Raw. On a bicycle, mind you. Yep. Stop-n-Search That Hippy then came into being.

So what exactly are ritsas/sea urchins?
Sea urchins (Echinoidia) are spiny globular animals, echinoderms, in the class Echinoidea. There are about 950 different species scattered around the world’s sea beds across all oceans — in hot and cold water alike. They usually range in size from 3 to 10 cm (1 to 4 in).

Sea urchins are members of the phylum Echinodermata, which also includes sea stars, sea cucumbers, brittle stars, and crinoids. With Echinoidia as their class, they are in the Camarodonta order and some belong to the Echinidae family. This family contains genera including Strongylocentrotus and Lytechinus.

Like other echinoderms, they have five-fold symmetry (called pentamerism) and cannot swim; instead, they move by means of hundreds of tiny transparent, adhesive tube feet. Sometimes they push themselves using their spines.

Etymologically, Echinoidea’ originates from the Greek ekhinos, spine. The word urchin is conveniently an old word for hedgehog, which is the same in Arabic with ( قنفذ ) [konfez] meaning hedgehog while ( البحر ) [al bahr] is the sea. Apparently, they were archaically called sea hedgehogs
in English as well. The name is derived from Old French herichun, from Latin ericius, hedgehog.

Sea Urchin: by Associated Press, KPBS (top), Hakai Magazine (bottom)
Purple and red among other colours.
Photos from Associated Press, KPBS (top), Hakai Magazine (bottom)

As food, the following is taken straight from Wikipedia with minor editorial polishing:

gonads of both male and female sea urchins, usually called sea urchin roe or corals, are culinary delicacies in many parts of the world. In Mediterranean cuisines, Paracentrotus lividus is often eaten raw, or with lemon, just like on the beaches of Egypt.

In Italian menus they are known as ricci and are sometimes used in pasta sauces. Notice ricci/ritsa Words With Italian Origin That Are Still Used Today In Egypt has a lot more similarities.
Also used to flavour omelettes, scrambled eggs, fish soup, mayonnaise, béchamel sauce for tartlets, the boullie for a soufflé, and Hollandaise sauce to make a fish sauce.

In Chilean cuisine, it is served raw with lemon, onions, and olive oil. Though the edible Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis is found in the North Atlantic, it is not widely eaten. However, sea urchins (called uutuk in Alutiiq) are commonly eaten by the Alaska Native population around Kodiak Island. It is commonly exported, mostly to Japan. In the West Indies, slate pencil urchins are eaten. On the Pacific Coast of North America, Strongylocentrotus franciscanus was praised by Euell Gibbons; Strongylocentrotus purpuratus is also eaten.

In New Zealand, Evechinus chloroticus — known as kina in Maori — is a delicacy which is traditionally eaten raw. Though New Zealand fishermen would like to export them to Japan, their quality is too variable.

In Japan, sea urchin, known as uni (うに), and its roe can retail for as much as ¥40,000 ($360) per kg; it is served raw as sashimi or in sushi, with soy sauce and wasabi. Japan imports large quantities from the United States, South Korea, and other producers. The Japaneses consume 50,000 tons annually, amounting to over 80% of global production. Such a high demand for sea urchins has raised concerns about overfishing.

Native Americans in California are equally known to eat sea urchins. The coast of Southern California is famous for being a source of high quality uni, with divers picking sea urchin from kelp beds in depths as deep as 24 m/80 ft. As of 2013, the state was limiting the practice to 300 sea urchin diver licenses. 

To finally reach closure, two summers ago while back on the Mediterranean Northern Coast of Egypt, I came across a vendor selling ritsa on the beach. Knowing then its full story, I decided to finally go for it, almost four decades later. All I remember is how tiny each ‘portion’ was. Ridiculously so, ending up licking what could fit on a single thumbnail. For now, sushi is the best way to enjoy them. I just wish they weren’t that pricey.

By the end of writing this article I came to remember what made them initially come to mind after slipping through the cracks for so long.
Two factors contributed, actually: The first is how they are by the gazillions here on the Ein el Sokhna beach by the Red Sea where I had been residing for more than a year. Literally few metres away from the shore. The second is missing the overpriced uni. Speaking of, mayhap I can just dive in, pick some up, and make my own? Or just enjoy them in the raw à la Mediterranean? Hm. Ideas ideas!

Having been living the beach life for almost seven years now, one cannot help but be drawn to all kinds of seafood.

Eventually one day I thought to end this age-long lesson by watching the below educating YouTube video
shot in California. It basically covers how sea urchins are processed commercially: Starting with opening, scooping up, cleaning, then packing it and making ready to be devoured. It goes on to show how they are graded according to the colour and texture, starting with premium and followed by three lesser quality grades.

One must say that the sizes of sea urchins shown in the video are significantly larger than the ones I finally tried on the Northern Coast.

And now we know. Salute.

*Featured image: Diadem sea urchin (Diadema antillarum) by Flowergarden.noaa.gov (top left)

How To Dive For Sea Urchins, And Tips For Eating Them by FoodRepublic.com (top right)

Norway’s first onshore sea urchin farm up and running by Nofima, Sciencenorway.no (middle)

sea urchins in Sicily
, Wikipedia (bottom left)

Japanese uni-ikura don, sea urchin egg and salmon egg donburi, Wikipedia (bottom right)

*Second image: Sea Urchin Invasion Wreaks Destruction On California, Oregon Coasts by KPBS (top)
Sea Urchins Stress Out by Hakai Magazine (bottom)

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