I first heard about sea urchin roe, also known as uni in Japan or ricci in Italy, from Anthony Bourdain. He had given an interview during the Tribeca Film Festival in which he said, “Put it this way, first or second date, I would always take a woman to a really good sushi bar and I would order uni, and if she didn’t eat the uni, that relationship was pretty much over. If she’s immune to the charms of sea urchin roe or unwilling to try it, there’s no hope.”
I was a teenager when I read about Bourdain’s love of uni, and I had never been to the kind of restaurant that was likely to serve it. Instead, I watched videos of hands scooping blobs of orange eggs out of their blue-black spiky shells, hoping that I could one day be like the people I saw on the internet who casually tossed the eggs back as they wobbled in fishing boats somewhere off the coast of Spain.
My opportunity to try sea urchin didn’t come until years later when I visited Madrid for the first time. I wandered from my hostel to Mercado de San Miguel, a kind of high-end food court that serves fresh seafood, colorful tapas and pintxos topped with salty anchovies. It was there that I encountered uni for the first time, looking almost sweaty under the lights of the display and paler than I had imagined. I never assumed I would find it there, in a city in the center of the country, 200 miles from the ocean.
I was excited. I ordered the sea urchin roe, still half-enclosed in its shell. I received a wooden spoon with which to scoop the eggs from the shell into my mouth. As I took my first bite, the first thing that hit me was the distinctly ocean-y flavor, like I had inhaled salty water through my nose. After that initial impression came an aftertaste of iodine. Then came the texture, creamy and full, almost lewd. To my dismay, I didn’t love it. In fact, I actively disliked it. I scraped one more bundle of eggs from the shell, bravely rolling the eggs around in my mouth before swallowing, grateful that the sensory ordeal was over. I gave the rest of the shell to my friend, conscious of throwing away the half-eaten delicacy in front of the man who had so generously served it to me. Also, it wasn’t cheap, especially considering my backpacker budget.
As a normally adventurous eater, my reaction to the uni surprised me. Yes, there are some foods I like more than others, but there are very, very few foods that I straight-up dislike. My first sea urchin roe experience felt like a failure to me, like I had failed the test of coolness, that I had offended and scandalized the class of people that Bourdain would’ve associated with, the uni eaters.
So, I kept trying it, accepting uni whenever it was offered to me, at work, at the Japanese grocery store down the street from my house, at my friend’s parents’ house where it was just one of many varieties of fish eggs on offer. But as much as I tried—and as much as I enjoyed other types of fish eggs—I have never truly enjoyed eating sea urchin roe.
I completely understand the appeal. I actually enjoy that briny, ocean-y quality that uni offers when it takes the form of a juicy oyster or a raw clam. I even love the soft, pudding-like texture that displeases uni’s most vocal critics. But something about that flavor and that texture coming together in one package is and always has been vaguely unpleasant to me. It’s not like I hate it so much that I’d spit it out; it’s just hard to convince me to take a second bite.
I’ve now come to the conclusion that I may never like uni, and that it’s just one of my many human flaws. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying it, though: I hope one day, I’ll get some particularly delicious uni that changes the way I feel about the popular ingredient, that I’ll suddenly understand why so many people love it and feel as excited to eat it as I did the first time when I was still unaware of what those vibrantly colored eggs had in store. In the meantime, I’ll have to live with the fact that Anthony Bourdain probably would’ve thought I have bad taste.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.