“The customary thing to do when you open one of these is just to drink the juice, kind of do a shot,” says Portland, Oregon-based chef Jacob Harth, as he slurps the juice from a purple sea urchin that he just plucked out of the water. “Amazing. Just a total umami blast, so much flavor.”
As Harth wades into the waters of Port Orford right off the Oregon coast, he discusses the complex economical, environmental, and ecological issues around the species, mainly, overpopulation. There’s been a 10,000 percent increase in the amount of sea urchins off the California and Oregon coast compared to five years ago; harvesting and creating a market for them will hopefully help the overpopulation issues. Much of the lack of consumer demand for wild sea urchin is due to the difference in taste: On reefs out in the wild, urchin can be bitter thanks to their varied diet of dead plants, fish, or a strange algae. Farmed sea urchins, often preferred by buyers, are far more consistent and plump, because they’re fed a steady diet of kelp.
Thankfully for Harth’s purposes, off-tasting urchin is not an issue in the seaweed-rich cove of Port Orford: Of all of the varieties of sea urchin, the purple ones are creamier, sweeter, and have more of a citrus note to them. To make his shoreside snack, Harth sets up a grill on the beach, and begins to clean the urchin. He cuts them and removes the tongues, and dips them in a bowl of salt water to clean them. He then grills up a piece of sourdough toast, and plans how to utilize both the intact and broken tongues. He makes a spread with the broken ones, and then the intact ones get placed on top. The toast is finished with a drizzle of tamari sauce and a sprinkle of sea grapes on top.
“I think a certain amount of human intervention to remove them and find a way to use them is necessary,” Harth says of the urchin, while handing off pieces of the buttery sea urchin toast to his crew.