If there were an “it” ingredient from the past few years, it has got to be uni, or sea urchin roe. This mustard-color and delicate substance from a prickly shell is sought after for its creamy texture. The briny flavor of the sea is just an added plus.

Definitely a popular item at the sushi bars, uni has also shown up in several Bay Area restaurants as the city’s chefs have incorporated the ingredient into creative dishes such as pastas, custard, and soups. To me, the texture reminds a bit like monkfish liver (also another popular sushi selection) and the briny flavor is akin to mussels.

Ooba (left), a type of shiso, and tobiko (right) basically add color to the dish

I decided to make a dish using uni, but it looks like I’m not the only one with uni on my mind. I found recipes here and here and here. And, unfortunately, the uni’s popularity (just like toro, or tuna belly) has caused an over-fishing of the sea urchin, according to this recent blog post. That’s why it’s important to know where your uni is coming from (several Bay Area restaurants get their uni from sustainable farms along the coast).

I got my uni from the Nijiya market in Japantown, but I neglected to ask where it came from. But I will next time, because I want to keep on enjoying this creamy roe for many years to come.

Along with the uni, I dressed up the dish with tobiko (mostly for its bright orange color) and a type of shiso I found at the market called “ooba” or “aojiso.” Enjoy!

The finished dish, which is quick to make

Uni Pasta with Tobiko and Ooba

Makes two servings

2 oz. fresh uni (sea urchin roe) (sold by the tray at Nijiya market, about 9 pieces)
4 T unsalted butter, room temperature
3 oz. dried pasta (either thick spaghetti or bucatini)
1 T Ooba or shiso leaves,  chiffonade (reserve one for garnish)
1 T tobiko (flying fish roe)
1/4 cup shrimp stock* (or fish stock)

Boil a pot of water to cook your pasta per packaging instructions. Don’t forget to salt your water, like it’s the Mediterranean sea. It’s best to time the pasta so it’s done just when the uni sauce is ready. (It’s really quick to make the uni sauce so start cooking your pasta first then work on the uni.)

When the butter is soft after leaving it at room temperature,  add the uni and mush together with a fork, leaving some uni pieces visible.  In a saucepan,  heat the shrimp stock over medium heat until the stock has reduced to a thin layer. (About 5 minutes.) Then blend in the uni butter mixture, stirring quickly until the butter has melted. Remove pan from heat and add the cooked pasta with some pasta water and toss in sauce and shiso to let the uni sauce coat the pasta. (TIP: the uni can dry out fast when heated, so add a bit of pasta water to retain the creamy texture. If it’s still dry after plated, drizzle with a bit of extra virgin olive oil.)

Plate the pasta and garnish by sprinkling tobiko strategically throughout the plate. Rip the one shiso leaf you set aside into tiny pieces for garnish. Serve immediately.

*I made my shrimp stock by saving up a bunch of shrimp shells in the freezer, then when I got enough (a full gallon freezer bag will do) then I boiled it in a pot of water with an onion, carrot stick, tomato, garlic clove, and a few peppercorns. (Cook for about 20 minutes.) Then strained through a sieve or strainer.

The uni whole (left) and mixed with the butter (right). When mixed, the uni seemed to melt.

The uni butter is quickly cooked in a saucepan with the reduced shrimp stock. This tasted so good in the pan I could just eat it now with a spoon.

Toss the cooked pasta quickly in the uni sauce. I used thick spaghetti.

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9 Responses to Jumping on the Uni Bandwagon

  1. Carolyn Jung says:

    Fancy! Looks so good. I bet Eric Ripert would smile at that dish, as he does an uni carbonara that is supposedly out of this world.

    • Ben Ben says:

      Thanks! Yeah, I saw a lot of recipes that really piled on the butter and cream to play up the creaminess of the uni. But I couldn’t do that to my cholesterol. I was pushing it already with the 4 tablespoons. 🙂

  2. foodhoe says:

    Looks yummy! I drooled over that recipe on tabemasu, I love mentaiko and scallops, but like the simplicity of your recipe… focus on the good stuff! To me, the texture of Uni is much softer and liquidy than ankimo, which is like firm butter, but I’ve never cooked with either.

    • Ben Ben says:

      Foodhoe, yeah, I really wanted to keep the recipe simple so that you could taste and appreciate the uni and not get distracted with too many other ingredients. And you’re right, ankimo is more firm, so I guess I was thinking more that it reminds me of uni because of the similar color. I love both though! 🙂

  3. hungry dog says:

    Ben, I have to say I have never been a huge fan of uni–it kind of gives me the heebie jeebies–but I am intrigued by this dish. Pasta and uni–sounds like a top chef creation.

    • Ben Ben says:

      HD, I know what you mean. When I first saw it in a dish, I was nervous because it just looked like the roe you see under the crab, which I generally avoid as well. But I started to appreciate the flavor and texture, and then it was always on everyone’s menu so you can’t avoid it. 🙂 Making it in pasta actually might be a good first taste for you because if you really blend the uni up with the butter, you won’t see it in the final dish.

  4. David says:

    Do you think the recipe would work with olive oil or something other than butter?

    • Ben Ben says:

      Hey David, in theory I think olive oil might work. The idea is to add something to the uni to make it creamier and easier to work with. By itself, it would be very thick after you mush it. My only reservations might be that the olive oil flavor might overpower the uni. (I did say you can drizzle oil at the end to help make it smoother, but that’s drizzling compared to the amount of oil you’d need if you substituted the butter.) But hey, give it a try and let me know. (The only thing is uni is expensive, I paid $10 for my tiny tray, so you don’t want to waste it if it doesn’t turn out.)

  5. Oy, what an indulgent concoction! I like the touch of adding fresh shiso leaves to cut through the fat with an herbal bite.