August 9, 2007
The Gold Standard for Uni

California doesn't have a state budget, but it does have new standards for uni, the buttery, briny, sometimes nutty roe of sea urchin, a staple of Japanese cuisine, especially sushi.

The California Sea Urchin Commission - if you haven't heard of it, that's understandable; it's been around only since the spring of 2004 - has adopted a three-tiered scale to help consumers identify the quality of uni.

They're "California Gold," the best, to describe uni bright gold, yellow or orange, with a fresh salty ocean aroma, a firm buttery texture, and a sweet buttery taste; "Premium California," also gold, yellow or orange, but less brilliant, with a similar smell and texture, and a flavor crisp and nutty; and "Select California," characterized by medium hues of yellow, orange or shading to brown, a salty ocean smell, a texture more soft and creamy, and a "more neutral nutty taste."

"California Gold" and "Premium California" both are fitting for sushi, with "top-dollar" restaurants serving the former, "more modest" cafes the latter, says Vern Goehring, the commission's executive director. "Select California" uni customarily is used in stews and soups; a lot of it is frozen and shipped to Japan for processing into an uni paste, notes Goehring.

Uni processors aren't obligated to abide by the standards. They're strictly voluntary at this time. The terminology and definitions are a first step toward bringing some uniformity to the industry, Goehring says. Up to now, each processor has had his own standards to determine whether the product was "top, medium or low," with nothing to establish consistency through the trade. "This is a first attempt to define (uni) in writing," says Goehring.

The state's uni trade generates $20 million to $25 million in annual revenues, says Goehring. Some 11 million pounds of wild live sea urchin are harvested yearly in coastal waters, from which about 800,000 pounds of uni is recovered. Approximately 60 percent of the crop is exported, though that share is declining as domestic cosumption increases because of the rising popularity of Japanese cuisine in the United States.

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