The tide is turning for an environmental pest destroying the underwater ecology off Australia's eastern coast. During the COVID-19 lockdown, Australians have developed a taste for the long-spined sea urchin, a native species whose numbers have exploded in the warming coastal waters.
"They eat everything," says Mallacoota fisherman Jason York. "They turn thriving reefs into 'barrens', moonscapes where the hungry little mongrels even eat the top layer of rock!"
York is one of nine licensed fishers who collectively harvest up to 70 tonnes of sea urchins a year from Victorian waters. That figure is set to spike with increasing interest from the seafood-loving public.
"People are becoming a lot more adventurous with the seafood they are buying to cook at home," says Stephanie Kaparos, of Victorian seafood distributor Clamms. "It used to be the well-known white fish such as flathead, but now, with lockdown, people are buying less well known seafood species, such as sea urchins."
She says the conditions this season have been exceptional, making sea urchins particularly plump.
Beneath their spines and thin, bone-like shell are lobes of roe with a similar texture and salty tang to an oyster.
Hugh Allen, executive chef of Melbourne's Vue de Monde, learned to prepare the so-called truffles of the sea while working at world-renowned Copenhagen restaurant Noma. "Good sea urchin is so exciting, so light, plump and sweet," he says.
He rates Australian urchins highly and says the best way to prepare them is to carefully cut them open, remove the roe, brine it overnight then serve raw with a dressing. At Vue de Monde, he serves the luxurious delicacies with native bunya nut cream topped with black caviar.
"It is no surprise that sea urchins are becoming popular here in Australia," says Sydney Fish Market's Alex Stollznow. "Every other country in the world that has them in their waters places them on the very top of their culinary tree. A frozen urchin sells for $30 in Singapore. Here you can pick up a fresh one for $4."
A simple pasta dish made with urchin roe, garlic and white wine would cost at least $40 to make in Italy. "Here you can make it for $6," says Stollznow.
He also points out that urchins are rich in Omega 3 and contain a compound called anandamide, Stollznow says. Naturally occurring, it activates the cannabinoid receptors in the human brain in a similar way to cannabis and is being developed as a painkiller. "Now you can eat the problem," says Stollznow, "and feel good about it, too."
Beginner's guide to sea urchins
When buying or fishing for sea urchins, look for individuals that are heavy for their size.
To open, hold the urchin in a dish cloth and, using kitchen scissors, cut a broad hole around the mouth. Drain the liquid and remove the lobes of roe with a spoon. Rinse to remove any shell. Sea urchin is also sold pre-shelled in plastic containers.
Sea urchins are popular in Japan, where they are known as "uni". In New Zealand, the delicacy goes by the Maori name "kina".
Melbourne: Buy from Queen Victoria, Prahran or South Melbourne market, home delivery via Clamms, clamms.com.au or direct from local boat ramps via Melbourne Sea Urchin (see their Facebook page for updates).