There are only going to be a handful of meals you think about on your deathbed. It doesn’t matter how many times you have sampled the latest deep-fried insect limbs or unicorn smoothie – ultimately, you will be left with four or five things seared on your brain. On my list, right up there alongside fillet steaks from Hawksmoor and the wines of Bekaa Valley, would be uni, the Japanese name for sea urchin, as it’s more widely known in the UK.
I first came across the delicacy in California a few years back, when it was all the rage in sushi bars. Had somebody told me that what I was eating were the sea creature’s gonads, scraped from within its cracked-open shell, I might not have felt quite so peckish. But, blissfully unaware, I popped the rust-coloured paste – wrapped in seaweed and dabbed with wasabi – into my mouth.
The uni was salty and fresh and then, as it melted inside my mouth, creamily opulent. When I visited Japan – where 80% of the world’s uni gets shipped – a few years later, I couldn’t get enough of it. It felt like the ocean’s answer to foie gras, not so much in terms of taste, but in mouthfeel. Sadly, depleted stocks mean it is not an entirely ethical alternative, although groups such as the ResUrch project are trying to establish uni farming methods that encourage sustainability.
“We’re getting 150 people asking for it each day,” says the head chef, Marco Calenzo.
Because Zuma serves fresh (rather than frozen) uni, it can only promise what comes in with the catch that morning. When the urchin arrives, it is cracked open to check if it, it is washed and brined in kombu (seaweed) water for about 10 to 15 minutes before it’s ready to eat. Because they normally only have enough for around a dozen portions a day, “we can’t really put it on the menu”, says Calenzo.
As Calenzo talks me through the dish, he drifts off into childhood reveries about catching sea urchin – how he would use it to make creamy Italian pasta dishes and how he would take a boat out with his parents and wash it directly in the sea before serving it on bread. As his eyes glaze over, it is obvious that he will be thinking about uni for the rest of his life, too.