Business Food

Eating Red Sea Urchin (Uni) Gonads Club

If you frequent sushi bars in California, you've most likely come across the red sea urchin's large gonads from Santa Barbara, California.
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The five slabs (lobes) of gonads of the sea urchin (uni). Image courtesy of Maruhide Marine Products

Like most sea urchin, they are harvested by hand by divers throughout the world. Even here in SoCal (links below about these divers), we have divers in the pristine Federally protected Channel Islands that risk their lives to fish the oceans for them. These urchins are a different species from the popular Japanese Bafun sea urchin (typically from Hokkaido) which aren’t as large and sweet as the Santa Barbara red sea urchin gonads (uni), and maybe that’s why chefs and restaurants seek them out. Anybody who’s had them, no it’s not just the size, but the motion of the ocean… ok, joking. It’s because these are some sweet tasty buttery gonads that’ll make you part of the uni lovers club.

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Harvested from the Channel Islands in Santa Barbara, California.

The Uni Fan Club

One of the major California red sea urchin producers in SoCal is Maruhide Marine Products which was established in 1975. If “Maruhide” sounds familiar, you might remember them from their very popular 4 stars, 568 Yelp reviewed restaurant “Maruhide Uni Club” which was owned by Maruhide. Unfortunately, they closed it in mid-2016 (undisclosed as to officially why), but you can still buy various products offered by Maruhide. Some of their offerings include fresh uni, uni shutou, to the sea urchin soy sauce (“uni shoyu“, oh damn, that’s fancy, but how does that taste?). All of which ships next day within the U.S. and three days to Japan for an omiyage gift to your homies, gf, bf, bff, or obachan.

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Premium grade California red sea urchin. Image courtesy of Maruhide Marine Products.

For every 1000lbs of live sea urchin, on average only 5-8 trays make premium grade which sounds like some high standards (imagine if your dating standards were that high #singleforever).

In Our Own Backyard

Eating seafood in Newport Beach, most assume they’re getting seafood from local sources, but that’s typically not the case because products come from all over the world. Luckily for SoCal residents, Maruhide Marine Products is located right here in Long Beach, California, and they produce a premium product to markets all around the world including the Tsukiji market.

Uni Grades

The quality of uni in the U.S. have grades, and the grades came about via the “California Sea Urchin Commission” which represents the several hundred licensed (restricted to 300) sea urchin divers.

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Red Sea Urchin come in varying grades. Image courtesy of IG: @lyfewithgrace
  • “California Gold” (formerly grade A): bright gold, yellow or orange color; firm buttery texture; fresh salty ocean scent; and with a sweet buttery taste. Uni sections are large and complete intact pieces. This is exceptionally high-grade uni for use in top quality sushi.
  • “Premium California” (formerly grade B): gold, yellow or orange color but less brilliant than California Gold; firm buttery texture; salty ocean scent; with a crisp and nutty taste. Uni sections are smaller but still primarily intact pieces. Premium uni is used for sushi, soups, salads, or combination dishes where uni is the featured item.
  • “Select California” (formerly grade C): medium hues of yellow and orange or even tending to brown in color; salty ocean scent; softer creamy texture; with a more neutral nutty taste. Uni may be intact sections but can consist of broken pieces of the other grades. Frequently Select is packaged and shipped frozen. Uses include soups, sauces and dishes where the uni is mixed with other ingredients, including other seafood.

Resources About Uni Worth the Read:

Now that you know about sea urchin processors, here’s some great articles about the sea urchin divers who harvest them by hand:

The ultimate uni resource for uni lovers: