Monday, September 15, 2008

Why Sea Urchin sushi (uni) tastes SO frakking good!

If you've ever enjoyed the fine diversity of Japanese cuisine, and are a serious sushi connaisseur (as I am) you have probably experienced the singular love of uni-a type of sushi made from the gonads (which produces the roe) of a sea urchin. To be sure, uni is not something everyone "gets" the first time they try sushi.
But, for people who enjoy uni, they REALLY enjoy it. Its a compulsion to order it when they visit the sushi bar!! But why???

Uni has a "euphoria-causing chemical" ingredient (albeit in very small quantities) similar to what you find in cannabis! Yes, pot, marijuana, etc. Specifically, a chemical neurotransmitter called an anandamide,also known as arachidonoylethanolamide or AEA
What are anandamides doing there in the first place?? These are actually naturally occuring chemicals in sea urchin gonads, which are thought to be important in the reproductive system, among other physiological/enzymatic processes associated with sea urchin fertility.
Interestingly, (according to Wired)-some scientists have hybridized the euphoria-causing anandamides from sea urchins in conjunction with the psychoactive chemicals from marijuana in order to better study the endocannabinoid system, which is partly responsible for pleasure and pain signals.

So far, anandamides have been studied in the N. Pacific purple sea urchin, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus and the European sea urchin Paracentrotus lividus.
I've not tried uni from other species (the two other species,S. franciscanus and S. droebachiensis I believe are made into uni). Several species are fished in Australia. One wonders if the amount of anandamide and the perception of taste (and the "high"), varies per species..

That being said can sea urchins handle the fishing stress?
Incidentally, according to one of the papers I foundthe chemical in S. purpuratus can reduce the fertilization capacity of sperm cells. This study was via direct application-not via ingestion, but if you are trying to be fertile, it probably doesn't hurt to lay off the uni, if you're having it every night! (plus uni is quite rich..so you probably can have too much of a good thing!!).

14 comments:

tHE tiDE cHAsER said...

That's interesting... reminds me of the low birth rate in Japan. Wonder if this could be one of the contributing factors?

ChrisM said...

An interesting notion-but I think
1. they would have to be eating a LOT of it..and I don't think its that widespread.

2. Japan has plenty of societal/social behavior that is much more likely to be at cause...

Anonymous said...

Thanks Chris! That was pretty interesting ;)
Malorie

Kenna Wickman said...

If this gets out - that you get a high from eating Uni - then the sea urchins on this coast might be doomed! Or become illegal.

On the other hand, maybe this compound is only common from the ones harvested near Mendocino, one of the world's great pot growing regions. Maybe its just a contaminant. (just joking of course)

Behan Gifford said...

I am a massive fan of uni, having been properly introduced at a quality restaurant by a connoisseur many years ago. SO GOOD. Actually, what I need to figure out is how/when to harvest our own. I mean, we see urchins a LOT! Unfortunately I am the only uni fan in our family (ahhh....don't know what they are missing) so it hasn't been a foraging priority. ;-)

ChrisM said...

I simultaneously encourage you to satisfy your palette but also to be careful with appropriate species. Some tropical urchins are quite poisonous and I don't know if there's a relationship between degree of defense and flavor/toxicity/unpleasantness of their gonads.

thanks for the kind words!

Brian Pentecost said...

I over the course of the last few hours have consumed about 100 grams of uni using chopsticks sea salt and lemon zest in tiny amounts. What a sinful food that I love to indulge in every once and a while. AS far as getting high is concerned....maybe it' not just the taste I am craving! I just found out today that it's not actually the roe of the urchin it is the gonads...Non male or female specific kinda gonads...however this does not discourage me from enjoying it.

Robert Wallace said...

They also have the world's greatest Abalone off Mendocino!

Kate said...

I always joked that uni is like my own personal crack cocaine. No one else I know seems to like it, aside from a select few foodies I met online. I love that a local seafood shop here will CALL me when they get some in fresh. They're like my drug dealer! LOL! It's interesting to have scientific evidence to suggest it is acting like a drug when people eat it, albeit in small quantities. I used to live in Japan and I miss eating fresh urchin there quite often. I was spoiled. Now I gotta wait for calls from my 'dealer' to get more, hehe. I also enjoy it in pasta sauce. I wonder what species the Italians use in their culinary ventures?

Anonymous said...

LOVE uni, first thing on my plate at every sushi bar.

S Lloyd said...

Hi Chris, I am a huge fan of sea urchin so your article caught my attention. Just tried some stunning ones from California recently. How would you compare the finest Californians Sea urchins to some of Japanese finest? Never tried the Japanese sea urchins

ChrisM said...

Honestly, I've never tried uni in Japan (never been to Japan). I hope to soon however!

Joyous Sociochemist said...

I am an UNI FREAK! Love it, love it, love it. Did I say I love it? And it's interesting that perhaps we can catch a buzz off it. Today I was doing Uni Shooters at my fav local sushi bar (Ichiban, Bakersfield, CA) and the waitress came over and asked me if I was ok because I was staring blankly off into space. I told her, "I think I caught too much of a buzz off the shooter", thinking it was the Plum Wine, but perhaps.....

ko40395 said...

Uni is the absolute ly most horrible thing I've ever eaten. And I've eaten tons of weird foods.
Don believe everything you read on the internet.