Friday, December 30, 2011

Eating Chilean Erizos, Sea Urchins

Like foie gras, egg yolks and pork belly, sea urchins have a lusciousness and weight that make chefs drool. “The mouth-feel is pure cholesterol,” said Michelle Bernstein-Martinez …who helped create a pressed sea urchin sandwich that is legendary in food circles.  She spreads slabs of Cuban bread with soy-ginger-flavored butter, stuffs the bread with sea urchins and presses the sandwich on a hot griddle until crisp and melting. “I eat it all day long — the only problem is that I am eating my profits.  Escape from the Sushi Bar,” Julia Moskin, New York Times, May 12, 2009. 

Sea urchin sandwich: Flickr, thewanderingeater

In case your experience with sandwiches in Chile has been limited to completos (hot dogs with everything) or ave paltas (chicken with avocado) something a bit more elegant is possible.  Of course you’ll have to make it at home, since the sangüche de erizos has not yet arrived at Santiago restaurants.  But then it won’t cost you $15 plus air fare to New York either.

A bit of history and biology

In spite of the lack of sangüches de erizos, sea urchins have been part of Chilean cuisine for millennia and continue to be popular today.  Their remains are prominent in coastal archaeological sites dating back 11,000 years[1] and were appreciated by the coastal Mapuche, who the Spanish met upon their arrival.  The Spanish had known, eaten and used sea urchins of the Atlantic and Mediterranean medicinally, although I doubt that Chile’s conquistadors, who came mainly from landlocked Extremadura, knew much about them.  Never the less, the young Chilean-Spanish soldier Francisco Núñez de Pineda y  Bascuñán, who was captured and held prisoner by the Mapuche in the 1620s seems to have known enough to have mentioned erizos in his account of his “happy captivity.”

By the 1670’s Chile’s sea urchins were well enough know that Diego de Rosales’ wrote about them in his Historia general de el Reyno de Chile:

Sea urchins are round and flat, and defend themselves not only with their shell, but they also arm themselves with sharp spines, with which they are filled all round.  …Enclosed inside is a meaty substance divided into tongue-like yellow forms… These tongues are soft and very tasty and greatly heat the stomach and easily provoke urination. [2]

                                     Loxechinus albus         photo:  Shallow Marine Surveys Group

He also says that they have a little crab inside with which, when food is scarce, “they sustain themselves, they eat them,” and in fact there are species of small pea crabs that are found inside sea urchins in the Caribbean… and perhaps in Chile too.[3] But I don’t think the urchins eat them.

One hundred or so years later, Abate Molina, Jesuit naturalist Juan Ignacio Molina, also wrote abut Chilean sea urchins:

The Echinos or sea urchins are divided into several species, the most notable being the white urchins and the black urchins.  The white ones, Echinus albus, [now Loxechinus albus (Molina, 1782)] are globular, three inches in diameter; they have a white shell and spines and the internal substance, which is extremely delicious, is of a profoundly yellow [amarizllazo] color. …The Chilean Indians call them jupe.
Black urchins, Echinus niger, [now Tetrapygus niger (Molina, 1782)] are oval in shape, somewhat larger than the white ones, and have black spines, shell and eggs; they are called devil’s urchins, and they are never eaten.[4]

The eatable part, the tongue-like yellow substance inside the urchins, is its reproductive organs which produce egg in females and sperm in males.  Both are eaten and are usually called sea urchin roe or corals.[5]  The white sea urchin (called the “Chilean red sea urchin” in the trade), from the near shore waters of Chile and Peru, is one of hundreds of species found in shallow ocean waters world wide. They feed mainly on sea weeds, but can also eat invertebrates like sea cucumbers, mussels, and sponges.  Sea urchin populations sometimes explode, whether from overfishing of their predators (including lobsters, and sea otters) or for unknown reasons, and eat everything eatable on the ocean floor leaving decimated “urchin barrens” behind. 

Once sea urchins had been described by Chile’s great colonial period naturalists, they ceased to exist—at least in writing—until resurrected by foreign visitors who found Chileans’ humble every-day foods interesting.  Their next appearance in literature seems to be in 1878, when Englishwoman Mrs. (Baroness Anna) Brassey saw (but seems not to have eaten) urchins in the Chilean port of Coronel in 1878.  She called them “sea eggs.”

Drawn up by the side of the pier was a picturesque looking market boat full of many sorts of vegetables and sea eggs, with their spines removed, and neatly tied with rushes into parcels of three.  The people seemed to enjoy them raw, in which state they are considered to be most nutritious; and when roasted in their shells or made into omelettes they are a favorite article of food with all classes.[6]

If urchins were a “favorite food with all classes” in the 1870s they have now fallen from favor.  Only 2% of Santiago residents surveyed in 1999 said that they ate urchins “frequently,”[7] but then all seafood consumption has fallen sharply in Chile.  Average per capita consumption in is only 7 Kg. per year. (see Eating Chilean Fish) compared to a world average of 17 Kg. (2008).


But some Chileans, mainly from the upper socioeconomic classes, continue to enjoy urchins, usually raw with a green sauce of parsley, onion, lemon juice and a little oil (at right); in a tortilla (omelet) de erizos like the ones Mrs. Brassey saw; or in sauces that adorn other seafood.

A few recipes:

The current issue of Paula, Chile’s best known magazine of food, home and style provides an article on urchins, “A Banquet of sea Urchins” including a recipe for a Tortilla de Erizos.

Sea urchin sauce is also popular over baked or poached fish, in this case corvina, as in this recipe from the 1911 Chilean cookbook, La negrita Doddi.[8]

Salsa de Erizos

(for corvina)
 In a skillet melt 50 grams [3 ½ T] of butter or lard with 30 grams [¼  cup] of flour and mix until well blended.  Add salt and pepper and 200 ml. of [fish] stock and bring to a boil.  Remove from the shell and rinse some sea urchin tongues and add to the sauce, continuing to stir until it comes to a boil, and then remove from the stove.  Just before serving add 30 grams of butter [2 T], cut into small pieces to melt quickly, and stir gently.  Add a few drops of lemon juice if you wish.
And from the same period, here’s a recipe for a Sea Urchin Soup (caldillo) from the magazine Familia of August, 1912.[9]

Caldillo de Erizos

Fry a little flour in butter and color [paprika or ground chili], add onion cut in plumas (sliced vertically) and the urchin tongues, and cover with the liquid from the urchins and when hot add oregano, cumin, salt and pepper.  Allow to boil a little while.  Then add an egg beaten with milk and lemon juice.  Serve with slices of toast.

A little history, a few recipes; that’s about all there is to say about Chilean sea urchins…. Or is it?

Chile’s sea urchin fisheries are the largest in the world and have been contributing more than 50% of the world’s production since the mid-1990s.  "Sea Urchin Fishery Profiles," 2006[10]
 Impetus for this development was not that Chileans suddenly renewed their taste for this traditional product; it was the Japanese.  Fresh sea urchins roe, uni, eaten raw as sushi or sashimi is among the most desirable foods in Japan, and the Japanese are the world’s major importers and consumers of sea urchins, importing 246 million dollars worth in 2002.

 Uni sushi in two colors:  Photo 徒然日記

Japan was the also world’s largest harvester of sea urchins until 1984. But since the 1970s Japanese harvests have declined steadily, due mainly to sea urchins’ declining abundance. The 2002harvest of 13,000 metric tons (mt) was less than half of the record landings of 1969. In 1985 the Chilean harvest surpassed that of Japan and since 1987 harvests in both Chile and the United States have exceeded Japanese landings.

Japanese imports increased tenfold from 1,779 mt ($20 million) in 1975 to 18,535 mt ($246 million) in 2002 when they supplied 88% of consumption.  Roe prices have fluctuated from 1986 to 2002 depending on supply, with Japanese roe ranging from about 7,500 to 13,000 yen/kg and imported roe selling for from 5,200 to 6,700 yen/kg in Tokyo’s central wholesale market.  Meanwhile, the Japanese yen has surged against the US dollar so that average 1986 import prices of 6786 yen/kg had a value of $33/kg and average 2002 import prices of 5278 yen/kg equaled $42/kg.[11] 

So Chile became the world’s major exporter of sea urchins.

Before about 1975 Chilean sea urchins were at best a minor element in Chile’s fishery, mostly collected by artisanal fishermen and their families wading in the surf zone of rocky shorelines during a few days each year with low tides and calm waters.  The annual harvest was only a few thousand mt that were sold locally, but by 1975 the harvest had grown to 10,000 tons and reached 60,000 tons in 1992, the peak year.  Remarkably, the Chilean catch seems to be sustainable—at least for now; it has been between 40 and 60,000 mt since the mid 1990s. [12]

Today, Chile’s erizo fishery is dominated by owners of lanchas de accarreo, carrier vessels, and small boat operators who work for them.  The carrier vessels are 60 to 80 foot boats that guide, supply and collect the catch from fleets of a dozen or so faenas, small dive boats. The “hookah” divers who do the actual collecting are supplied with air through compressors and tubing, and harvest about 1000 lbs a day in 3 to 5 hours of diving. The crews of the faenas live on their boats for months at a time while harvesting the surrounding area.  The carriers make almost daily roundtrips from the collecting areas, in the islands south of Chiloe Island, back to their home port of Quellon.

Dive boat with larger carrier (?) in the background  photo: German Henriquez

The carrier boats receive (as of 2007) about 240 centavos per kg. ($.48 US) of which about 70% goes to the divers.  These urchins go to local processing plants where they are cleaned and shipped onward to be frozen for export to Japan.  Local divers whose fresh whole erizos sell in local markets receive up to 1,000 pesos a kg.[13]

Sea urchin processing in Quellon, Chiloé island. (Photo:  Proa)
By the time fresh urchins arrive in Santiago, the sell for 7-800 Chilean pesos each, about $1.35 to $1.50 each.  By comparison in US you would pay $8 to $15 per urchin.  And who knows what in Japan.  I’ll eat mine here.


Sea urchins, Mercado Central,

But if you can’t get to the Mercado Central, Sea urchins are on sale via the Internet.  Those bellow from Catalina Offshore products are sold at about as good a price as you will find and are from California where they are hand-harvested by divers.


Sea urchins are also available from Maine where they are harvested by dredging, a method that is not sustainable and has a by-catch of everything on the bottom.  Monterey Bay aquarium’s Seafood watch recommends that you avoid sea urchins from Mane.

Should you try them?  Perhaps quote from Julio Camba (1882-1962) Spanish journalist, writer and gourmand will encourage you.

 And, by the way:  If you are rich enough to worry about getting fat from eating sea urchins, you’re okay.  They have only 145 calories per 100 gm.  But don’t eat too many, they are high in cholesterol.

And for other Chilean seafood, see these links:

[1] Alfaro, Silvia y Claudia Solervicens. ND. Prehistoria del Valle de Choapa. Codelco, ReCrea - Servicios Editoriales y Educativos Ltda.  On line at
[2] Rosales, Diego de. 1877. Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna. ed. Historia general de el Reyno de Chile: Flandes Indiano (1425-1553). I. Valparaíso, Chile: Imprenta i Libreria del Mercurio. P. 304  All translations mine.
[3] Pea crab. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  On line at  And thanks to the erudite members of’s forum who helped me translate this quotation and knew that pea crabs live inside urchins.
[4] Molina, Juan Ignacio. 1987. Ensayo sobre la historia natural de Chile : Bolonia 1810 Santiago : Eds. Maule. p. 219.
[5] Sea urchin. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  On line at
[6] Mrs. (Ann) Brassey. 1881. A Voyage in the Sunbeam, our Home on the Ocean for Eleven Months.  Chicago: Belford, Clarke & Co. p.159.
[7] Soong, Roland. 2000. Eating Seafood in Chile.  Zona Latina.  On line at
[8] Lawe.  1911 La negrita Doddy : nuevo libro de cocina, enseñanza completa de la cocina casera i parte de la gran cocina : con un apéndice de recetas útiles i de los deberes de una dueña de casa. Santiago : Soc. Impr. y Litogr., Universo. p. 28. On line at
[9] Menoria Chelina.  2009 Para chuparse los dedos: Recetas de familia. On line at
[10] Sea Urchin Fishery Profiles:  A background document produced by Explorations Unlimited Inc. Pacific Urchin Harvesters Association/West Coast Green Urchin Association. p. 45  On line at
[11] Sonu, Sunee C. 2003. The Japanese Sea Urchin Market. NOAA Technical Memorandum (NMFS N OM-TM - N M FS-S W R-040).  On line at
[12] Molyneaux, Paul. 2007 Sustainable Sea Urchins in Chile:  A Rep[ort for the SUZC,
[13] Ibid.


  1. a VERY nice post. congratulations.
    - Frank

    twittered in!/frankh_art/status/154650458949029890

  2. Thanks, Frank. I appreciate it. Stay warm in Ontario.


  3. Informative post! I enjoy the historical perspective you provide.

    Things are expensive in Santiago; down South in Valdivia where I'm living they're half the price. Still not worth it to me though, after trying sea urchins and blogging about them a few months back(link below), I've come to the conclusion that erizos are very much an acquired taste...


    Living in Patagonia

  4. Thanks Jen. And yes, sea food is much more expensive in Santiago. Enjoy everything you like and I'll have your share of erizos next time I'm in Valdivia.


  5. I've really enjoyed reading this in post, with its exhaustive coverage on the history and production of this little creature here. I'm afraid, though, that I haven't got up the courage to try them, as I've been told that they has a very strong taste.

    I actually came across your blog on a search on machas. This led me straight to your post on the origins of machas a la parmesana. I was after this, as we are currently in Coquimbo, where we watched the fishing boats come ashore with machas -- or surf clams, as I've found out from you. And by the way, I've just finished a huge plate of machas a la parmesana, before writing this!

    All the best...

  6. Thanks, Andrew. If you order a mariscal (plate of mixed sea food) you can try erizos without committing yourself to a whole plate full... and you may like them. And clicking on your name took me to your photo blog. Nice pictures!

  7. This blog of your is made me more interest to read it You have given a nice interesting information about the production of hen and the fish.


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