I have to admit, it took me a while to appreciate uni. I blame that on the fact that most of my early experiences with sea urchin were with product that today I wouldn’t touch, i.e. stinky and pissy. I remember eating a particularly disgusting uni sushi asking myself, “why would anyone prize this? It’s disgusting.” Of course, these days, I know better. I know that really fresh uni doesn’t have that pissiness or that stink or that funky taste that is really and truly revolting. Really fresh uni is sublime in an earthy, sensual kind of way.
These days I am super fortunate to have made friends with a lovely lass whose papa is a Japanese seafood importer. My wife and I now only buy uni from them. Not only are we getting good prices, we are assured of great quality.
Because of this access to top-notch uni, I’ve been experimenting a lot more with the ingredient this past year. One of the my favourite recipes/inventions has been my uni encased in a tomato water jelly. But making that dish is rather time-consuming. Another favourite that I have taken to serving guests quite often recently–and a dish that is far easier to make–is my version of uni pasta.
Now, there are dozens upon dozens of recipes for uni pasta. The dish can be prepared in a more classically Italian style or cues can be taken from the Japanese (whom I believe are the masters of presenting sea urchin). For my own favourite style, I actually took inspiration from a photo in the Il Ghiottone cookbook. Il Ghiottone, if you don’t know, is in my opinion the best Italian restaurant in Japan. The original branch is in Kyoto, in a lovely hidden nook behind the much-visited Yasaka Pagoda. I consider its chef, Yasuhiro Sasajima, a true artist. I love his ability to create addictively delicious dishes based on the foundations of Italian cookery but which showcase Japanese seasonal produce.
Now, his cookbook is entirely in Japanese (with dish names also in Italian), which I can’t read. So, all I can do is look at the gorgeous pictures and try my best to decipher what ingredients he’s using and to imagine the flavours he’s created. The image that inspired me was this beautiful mound of pasta, dressed in a clear hardly-there sauce, tossed with soy beans, topped with uni, and plated with a small mound of a golden brown powder off to the side.
Knowing that most of Sasajima’s sauces are stock-based, I decided to make a reduced fish stock. I then finished this off with butter right before tossing in the cooked pasta. I did experiment with shucked soy beans but decided after a few versions that the dish didn’t need it. For the first few versions, I used dried scallops to make a powder which I sprinkled on the pasta to add some more umaminess but more recently, I have been creating a mix using pounded fried sakura ebi, diced shiso leaves and nori. This gets tossed into the pasta and gives it a lovely extra flavour.
The uni, of course, should be super fresh and served in generous portions. I also like to top the uni with some ikura but my wife thinks it’s overkill. I, however, like the little salty explosions peppered through the dish.
Anyway, here’s my recipe. You can use any kind of pasta. I’ve used everything from bigoli to fregola and it still tastes great.
Uni Pasta Foundation Recipe
Reduced Fish Stock
2 fish heads (I use salmon and snapper) and bones (whatever you’re fishmonger has that he’ll sell you cheap)
1 white onion (quartered)
1 stalk lemongrass (bruised)
1 red chilli (seeded)
2 carrots (chopped in large chunks)
Roots/stalks of a large bunch of coriander (cleaned of course)
In a large pot, heat up a tablespoon of cooking oil over medium-high heat. Add everything above except the fish. Once the onions are beginning to colour a little, add in the fish and stir for a minute or so.
Pour in 2 litres of water or until everything in the pot is covered. Bring to a boil. Skim off the the scum that might float to the top. Then reduce the heat to a low simmer and cover the pot. Let cook for an hour. Then take the lid off and cook for another 30 minutes.
Strain the liquid into another pot and over high heat, reduce until you get about 3 cups of liquid. Flavour with some soy sauce.
When you are ready to assemble the dish, cook your pasta. In a separate pan, add some of the reduced fish stock and heat it up. Just be careful not to use too much… you want a sauce, not a noodle soup dish (you have to judge the amount yourself). Toss in a knob of butter, stir it into the hot stock. Time the butter step just before your pasta is done. Then toss in the hot cooked pasta into the sauce. Keep stirring over high heat. You want the pasta to absorb the sauce. Then add in whatever herbs or other flavour accents you want. Plate and heap a nice mound of uni on top.