Uni Everywhere: Are Luxury Food Trends Sustainable?


Uni toast, uni pizza, uni pasta—sea urchin seems to be dominating menus across major metropolitan cities.

Just a few years ago, kale seemed to be the ingredient of choice, appearing in everything from breakfast dishes to tacos. While kale can be grown and harvested in farms and home gardens, as well as rooftop gardens and hyroponic experiments, some of America’s favorite new food trends are not as accessible.

This poses the question, if we’re eating all of these hard-to-come-by foods at once, are we depleting their stock?

Uni refers to the gonads, or reproductive organs of sea urchins. Sea urchin, a small spiny animal, is only found in the wild and harvested by hand, by using a rake and netting. However, a desire for the rich, tasty treat has led to overfishing, “devastating once-booming markets in Maine, Chile and Ireland,” explains sushi chef Josh Bedell, of New York’s Cherry.  

Vinny Milburn, co-owner and fishmonger at Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Co., Brooklyn’s first sustainable seafood market and restaurant agrees that overfishing and destruction of natural habitats has led to a decrease in sea urchin in specific areas, but says that sea urchins are abundant in areas like California. Also, because sea urchin is harvested by hand, the environmental impact is much less than that of catching commercial fish like tuna.

Uni, the orange, slimy insides of a sea urchin, is packaged in wooden boxes for many American chefs, and then stirred into sauces, smeared atop carbohydrates or just served plain on the side for an extra sea-like flavor. To many, uni is a highly acquired taste and texture. Unlike kale or truffles, two major food trends which are undeniably pleasing to the palate, uni takes some work.

“Uni is popular because people are starting to experiment more with exotic food sources. The best food is the freshest food, and it doesn’t get any fresher than an urchin you clean yourself. The uni trend may fade out, but customer’s curiosity and willingness to try new and exciting foods isn’t going anywhere,” said Milburn.

While the U.S. government is currently funding projects looking into how to make consuming sea urchin more sustainable, there doesn’t seem to be any large threat to the supply. Because sea urchin mostly eat algae, surviving at the bottom of the food chain, uni has the potential to have a positive environmental impact as the food trend grows.

An industry group called the California Sea Urchin Commission claims it works to “ensure a reliable, sustainable supply of quality sea urchin products to consumers and enhance the performance of California's sea urchin industry," but is actually quite controversional. The group's interests are in conflict with California's population of endangered sea otters, which need to eat sea urchin to survive. The Center for Biological Diversity reports that the CSUC's efforts to eliminate fishermen's competition with otters can be dangerous to the lingering population of the furry marine mammals. 

Truffles are another ingredient found on upscale menus from L.A. to New York City and primarily only used in human diets. Some truffles are shaved fresh atop dishes, pureed into a paste or sprinkled on top of a plated meal. Similar to uni, these luxurious ingredients can’t be found just anywhere—certainly not in a home garden or farmer’s market. Truffles, which are a fungus, are harvested in Northern Italy, Tuscany and France, as well as other parts of Europe. American restaurants import black and white truffles starting in September until the harvest ends around December.

Truffles, which grow in the ground, are often found by trained truffle-hunting dogs, who sniff underground until detecting the fragrant scent of some of the world’s most expensive tubers. Truffles are dug up and shipped whole, often being auctioned to prestigious chefs. Due to the difficult process of harvesting a truffle, and its prohibitive cost (many menus offer a truffle add-on for upwards of $50), depleting truffle stock is near impossible. Growing new from spores each year, a truffle harvest can be more or less successful than the previous year, making truffle hunting a bit of a game of luck.

Ilan Hall, of the Gorbals, which has locations in Los Angeles and Brooklyn, doesn’t believe there’s anything unsustainable about truffles. “Quality truffles in restaurants are not very prevalent, so I don't think we are over-consuming the real thing,” he said. He uses fresh truffles for special occasions and celebrations and compares them to root vegetables like squash and beets. While eating a beet salad is totally doable, consuming an entire plate of shaved truffles seems less pleasing.

Food trends will come and go, but hopefully not because the ingredients are disappearing. Treating yourself to a luxury food item doesn’t have to be totally guilt-ridden, knowing that ingredients like uni and truffles have their place in the ecosystem, are harvested by hand and not in imminent danger of disappearing.  

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