All You Can Do With Sea Urchin – Daniel Kogan

Sea urchin is an acquired taste, I won’t lie. The average American would likely refuse to try that toxic little porcupine of the ocean, never stopping to look past its spiny exterior to see the true beauty inside. Many have likely never even heard of the sea urchin, or only heard stories of people stepping on the little bastards that dot the ocean floor like land mines. To me, however, there’s a million little things to love about them. 

My pop was the one who introduced me to the magical world of marine hedgehogs. An architect with a face as stern as the back of the boat, he had steel blue eyes and a jawline as sharp as the rocks we’d often frolick between. Much like the sea urchin, beneath his harsh exterior, he was sweet and comforting. I suppose that was why he was always so fascinated with them. I’ve seen the looks people would give us on the street, a 6’4 golem of a man walking around with a pale-skinned little boy with hair like the down feathers of a newborn chick and a petite woman with massive dimples and a radiating aura of goodness that clashed with his stone cold aura. Everybody looked afraid of him, but the urchins showed no emotions, so they couldn’t judge him. Maybe he thought that by introducing me to them, I could maybe understand him better. 

When my dad told me for the very first time that we were hunting urchins, my little stubby legs wobbled up to the big mountain of a man and I tugged on his pant leg as one would tug on the clapper of a bell. He slowly bent down as I whispered in his ear “Dad, are we gonna eat the sea urchins?” He whispered back “Yeah buddy, we will.” I pondered this statement for a bit with deep concern, but then I whispered back “But sea urchins are SPIKY, dad.” At this he unleashed a hearty guffaw, his foot stomping on the ground like an ogre rummaging through the forest. He patted my thick, curly hair, lifted me up onto his shoulders, and we set off to go rockpooling as my mother bid us goodbye with a hug and a kiss.

Looking on in awe at all of the colors and wonder of the shoreline, I was overwhelmed with emotion. Naturally, the only way to release my emotions was to take a pebble made sleek by the ebbing and flowing of the tide and shove it directly into my mouth. Even though my father managed to remove said pebble, it was like prying meat from the mouth of a crocodile. My father sighed as I proceeded to wreck mayhem on the previously quiet beach. I ran after seagulls, trying to catch them and keep them as pets. I poked the slimy and green sea cucumbers hiding between the crevasses of the rocks until they’d shoot out their web-like guts. I kicked up sand into the air, digging deeper and deeper until I could find the moist layer in which the sand crabs resided so that I could watch them squirm in my hands. My curiosity, however, came to a screeching halt when my father plucked out a sea urchin from the clear water.

I’d never seen a sea urchin in real life before, and it certainly frightened me. Its spines weren’t particularly long, but it looked like a pin cushion with all the spines being so heavily clustered. The spines were all moving independently of each other as its gaping mouth stared at me. I’d read that this was a collector urchin, as it was adorned with tiny clam and mussel shells that had stuck to its surface. I was allured by its deep purple tinge, but still too apprehensive to touch it. The unspoken word of my nervousness was clear to my father, so he took out a large pair of scissors from his bag and began to carefully snip snip snip from the mouth of the urchin. He went all the way along its side, twisting and turning the urchin until he had two pieces. What could only be described as sea phlegm plopped onto the ground as the two halves were pulled apart.

I stared into the gaping maw of the halved urchin, its numerous limbs still kicking about. Imagine going hiking in a cave and finding an unassuming grey boulder tucked away in some corner. Then, you hoist it up only to thrash it against the ground with all your might. The rock shatters and reveals that it was in fact a glorious geode, with deep indigo quartz crystals lining the inside of the fragments, spiraling in infinitum. That’s what the sea urchin was like for me. Inside this unappealing little creature were these beautiful sacs of roe. They glowed a vibrant orange like a sunset, and my dad dug out a spoon from his pouch of tools and scooped one up. They looked like little tongues, and danced on my own tongue once my Dad popped it into my mouth. It was sweet and creamy like gelato, yet had this fresh oceanic brininess that reminded me of where we had plucked this treat from. From that point on, me and my father would always go hunting for urchins, as one of those few activities that we could really share in equal bliss.

I’d grown accustomed to sucking the juicy uni right out of the shell, scraping my spoon against the inside ridges like tires on an unpaved road. After a few times of that, my dad suggested that we haul our catch back to the house. Much to my surprise, we did not immediately consume the urchins upon arrival. My dad stored them in a little saltwater tank and claimed to be saving them for later. With a pouty face, I marched up to my room and watched whatever crap was being spewed out from the TV until I passed into the land of nod. As I woke up, I drowsily lumbered down the stairs, only to be greeted with the familiar scent of scrambled eggs. My dear mother was making her rich and creamy french style scrambled eggs, one of my favorite breakfast treats in the whole world, so I was bouncing up in down in my pajamas until I got to the table. Strange yet familiar orange blobs adorned my scrambled eggs. My young mind was perplexed, as I thought that sea urchin could only really be, well…sea urchin. But then I took a big spoonful, and as the sweet uni cut through the richness of the eggs, I realized that urchins, like all things, have much more going on than one would expect.

The first thing I tried to cook was an uni don, or uni rice bowl, when I was about twelve. Take a good amount of rice and stick it in a pot, then pour over some cold water. The trick is to stick your index finger in to touch the rice and have the water come up to your first knuckle. When the rice is soft and fluffy like sheep’s wool, drain it off and plop some into a bowl. Season it with a little sesame oil and soy sauce (the good kind, not the ones with the crazy sodium content) and then top with heaping piles of urchin, some sesame seeds, and a little dried nori if you wish. It’s clean and pure, but a very simple dish like my father. He didn’t want anything complex, but when he cleaned up that bowl for the first time without uttering a single word, it gave me the confidence to keep trying out cooking. Soon, I was producing everything from steak tartare to croquembouches, always trying to learn something new to make. My dad starting calling me his “little chef,” and that stuck a lot better than whatever he was calling me before. I dreamed of opening a formal, 3 Michelin starred seafood restaurant right by my house, with an ice cream bar attached to it. My dad never mocked my dream, but he just responded with a simple “You do what you feel is right.”

To make ricci del mar linguine, or sea urchin linguine if your spirit doesn’t reside in the Italian Coast, you first need to make your own pasta. I won’t bore you with the details, so just boil that linguine in a bubbling cauldron of water that should be so salty you could float in it like a corpse. You could use pasta from the box, but if I figured it out how to make it fresh at 14, you can too.  Fry some garlic in some olive oil until your whole house smells of it, and mix in some urchin on a lower heat for a proper sauce. After seasoning with a little bit of chili flakes and parsley, dump in your linguine and stir it thoroughly, adding salt and pepper as needed. It should have a nice, firm bite to it like the bite of my dad’s harsh voice. He began to yell over progressively smaller and smaller things, like my shoes being untied or my hair having a few too many uneven bits. His calm and rationality started to fly in pieces out of his ears, as mom got weaker and weaker. Even as she lost her hair to chemotherapy and her weight flew off of her, she never lost her bright smile. Dad was never one to tell you how he was feeling, but I could tell under his shouting he was scared. He didn’t understand how to live in a world without his wife, and refused to accept it, so he lost it. However, by lost it, I don’t mean he started screaming and flailing like a baboon, but that he lost his sense of self. And he never really found it.

Pate d’orcin is French for sea urchin pate. It’s a traditional dish in Newfoundland, and it’s not a dish you see ever so often, especially not 16 year old me. Cube up a big loaf of bread and dice up an onion. After getting a nice big pool of butter foaming in a pan, throw in those onion bits until just softened, and then add the bread chunks until it turns to mush. Mix said mush with plenty of nice and fresh sea urchin pieces, and smooth it out into a terrine dish. After letting it cook in the oven in a bain marie full of water, let it cool in the fridge until it slices like cheese. It should be unctuous and rich like the dressed up dames walking the streets of Paris with fur coats and red lipstick. They were a dime a dozen when I took a trip there with my father in what could have been a time to heal and bond. The man was so in denial all the way up to the end that he booked a trip to France to surprise my mother as a celebration for beating cancer, a distant dream for my mother. Naturally, life didn’t give my father that victory, and he decided to take me to Paris instead, presumably to take our minds off of all we’ve been through. My mother stayed at home steadfast, telling us not to worry, that there were always more trips together, but I feel like Dad finally figured out that there wouldn’t be. It was simply mother’s selflessness again, trying to assuage our fears by putting aside her own. I gobbled up pate at a little bistro with polished wooden tables, except this one was made with bits of rabbit and studded with black truffle and foie gras. My father indulged in luxury in a different way, sipping upon a fine glass of red wine. And then he finished it. And sipped upon another. And then another, except at this point he wasn’t sipping but chugging it. I tried to look into his eyes to get inside his head, but instead of happiness, sadness, or fear, it was completely vacant behind his corneas. 

When making sea urchin ceviche, you’re going to be using a lot of raw vegetables, so it’s all down to the knife work, and mine admittedly was a little sloppy at 18 when I first tried this out. Finely dice some tomatoes, serrano chiles, shiso leaves, part of a red onion, and a jicama and throw them into a bowl. To season and bind together the veggies, mix up lime juice, salt, pepper, and olive oil in a separate bowl until thoroughly combined, and then mix with the other ingredients, careful not to make too much of a paste. Top with dollops of the gonads and you’ve got sea urchin ceviche. It should be refreshing with loads of crisp textures, but tart and briny, like the scent of my dad’s booze laced breath and unclean beard hairs. I think my dad turned to booze to make himself feel something. As you no doubt expected, this was when mom finally succumbed to her illness, where her eyes slowly shut as her lips curled up on the sides. I don’t even know if he wanted to feel good or happy, but perhaps he just wanted to wallow in emotions that were long gone. His wallowing included constant screaming and slurring, throwing china, and passing out all over the house. That whiskey stench soaked straight into the couch cushions as he grew more lethargic and more dependant on Judge Judy and reruns of Two and a Half Men. The man who had always tried whatever dish I turned out with glee and excitement now just gobbled them up and demanded more and more food. He still kept his job somehow, but I could tell that his days there were numbered. I started talking with him less and less, as it just made me too sad, but then one day I snapped and shouting matches became our form of communication. You know the jist. He called me lazy and incompetent, I said that I wished it were him and not mom that was gone, he gave me a big hard slap across the cheek, and I left out the door with tears streaming down my face and didn’t look back. As for what I felt? Well, you don’t need to know how I felt. She was my mother, I loved her, and then she died. That’s it. And then my father was dead to me too.

Let’s go back to another simple recipe: sea urchin on toast. Simply butter up both sides of little slices of bread (I normally go with a baguette) and fry them on a pan until nice and crisp. After carefully aligning the pieces of uni like dominos waiting to be knocked over, squirt over a hefty helping of lemon and some salt. Garnish with a few thin slices of jalapeño. It’s about the pure taste of uni contrasting with crunchy bread. Then, you get that zing of lemon and the jalapeño leaves a lingering burn, stinging like the pain of my father never seeing me come into my own. When I walked out, I walked out. He didn’t know that I put aside my chef dreams for a more practical job in the financial industry. He didn’t know that I met a pretty girl at a coffee shop, and somehow my terrible pickup lines convinced her to stick me with a bit. He didn’t know that me and that pretty girl got married in a beautiful chapel with all of her family there and almost none of mine. He didn’t know that he now had grandkids, an 8 year old boy and a 5 year old girl, who are adventurous enough to try that spicy sea urchin toast yet compassionate enough to always ask how their grandpappy who they never see is doing. The truth is, I didn’t know how to answer their questions of “Will we ever get to meet grandpa?” Because in reality, I was too scared. I was too scared to pick up that phone and cry over how much I loved my father and talk about lost time, because I could no longer remember what I had been so angry about in the first place. I couldn’t truly understand why my father was no longer a fixture in my life, and I didn’t want to rehash embarrassing and painful memories of 15 years prior. He tried calling me for years and years, and I guess after I never picked up he gave up trying. Except one day, he actually called again. And I picked up.

To make sea urchin custard, or sea urchin chawanmushi as it is traditionally called, crack a few eggs into a bowl to start out. Get out your chopsticks, and beat those eggs with soy, mirin, dashi, and uni until it’s homogenous and then sieve it. Pour this custard back into the shells the urchin came from, with little bits of chopped scallion on the bottom, and steam with the bain marie method from earlier. It should be creamy and smooth like the waves of the sea brushing up against me and my dad’s calves for the first time in decades. There was no grand reunion. It was just “I missed you” and then “I missed you too.” After a deep long hug that felt good but couldn’t make up for everything we had missed out on, we realized that we couldn’t dwell on what we lost and went rockpooling. Soon, this became our monthly habit again. Even the kids joined in on it every now and again. He never apologized for what happened in word, but when I saw the pain in his eyes the first time we went rockpooling, I wept for all of the days he had spent alone. I wanted to tell him that those lonely days were over, but as you’ve expected by now, the good things can never last for too long.

The old man had gotten cancer. It wasn’t even the same kind that took mom away those many years ago, so he couldn’t get any semblance of poetic justice from it. Soon, we couldn’t even go by the ocean without him collapsing from his wobbly knees. After he tripped on a stone and broke his ankle, I realized it just wasn’t safe for him to be out and about anymore. He stayed with me and my family for the last few months of his life. It was so sweet to see how fond the kids had grown over my pop. I never realized until then that my daughter had that same quiet sensibility and telling gaze that my father had always had. And much like my mother never lost her smile, my father never lost his communicative stare. I remember clutching his hand as his heartbeat slowed to a crawl, and all he had to send off with was “So long, my boy.” And then he was gone.

As I popped up the top of the ornate ceramic vase, the black dust drifted through the air. It swirled through the air as if a spirit still thrived amidst the ash. As the tornado that was once my father settled down, the little black bits gently floated into the sea. They weren’t to foam up and create new beautiful life like Aphrodite arising from bits of Uranus. Instead, the bits of my father were destined to be found in the mouths of the little bottom feeders he had always been so fond of. Much as he had eaten them, they would now eat him. It was what he wanted, to fall victim to the cyclical nature of the world and to become part of the only things that ever truly understood him.

I never really grasped my father like the urchins could, but it’s not all that bad. An unspoken word exists between people: the word of love. I loved my father deeply, my mother did too, even if we couldn’t always see what was going on in his head. We still chat, I just never know if he’s listening. Maybe he never did.

I dig my feet into the coarse, gravel-like sand, pushing my toes up and down. I stomp up into the brackish waters ahead of me and pluck out two perfect little urchins hiding from me between the rocks. I put my two spiny friends on a little blanket beside me, as I sit down into beach. With my hands folded over my knees and cold winds combing my thick hair, I look out deep into the horizon. The water undulates far out in the distance as the scarlet sun dives into a thin layer of clouds. I take out a big pair of shears and split one urchin into two. Its roe is sweet and succulent, everything I remembered it being in my childhood. When I bust open its companion, however, it has a bitter and almost astringent taste. I pick out a few stray bits of spine from my teeth, stare back at the water’s surface. “Heh,” I mutter to nobody in particular. “That’s life, I guess.”

Daniel Kogan is a senior at Cresskill High School in Cresskill, NJ and will be attending Haverford College in 2020. He is the co-president of the creative writing club as well as the secretary of the medical club. Every morning he broadcasts the daily announcement to the student body at his high school. Daniel works at a senior home where he delivers lectures on a different animal each week called “Exploring the Animal Kingdom with Daniel Kogan,” as well as many other activities. He often cooks and bakes for family occasions, parties, school events and just for himself. In his free time, he enjoys playing video games, writing or going on walks with his dog while listening to music, preferably Billy Joel.