Uni Pasta (ウニパスタ)
Uni Pasta (ウニパスタ) is a Japanese-style pasta made with spaghetti enrobed in a creamy sea urchin sauce. In Japan, it’s one of those fancy dishes you expect to find on the menu at expensive restaurants, but it’s actually not that difficult to prepare.
In this Uni Pasta recipe, I’m going to show you the fundamental techniques you need to know to prepare this, and these methods can be adapted to make other similar pasta dishes.
Table of contents
Why This Recipe Works?
- Mashing the uni rather than pureeing retains some of its texture.
- Finishing the pasta like risotto by stirring it with oil and water releases starch from the noodles, allowing the two liquids to form a creamy emulsion. This creates the base for the uni cream sauce.
- Adding the uni and cream mixture to the pasta at the very end ensures the sauce is silky smooth and does not break.
What is uni?
Uni (うに, ウニ, or 海胆) is the Japanese word for sea urchin. It’s also the name of the edible orange or yellow roe or “coral” inside of the sea urchin’s shell. Although it’s traditionally been eaten by cultures worldwide, Japan is by far the largest consumer of uni.
Climate change has contributed to a boom in sea urchin populations around the world, and they’ve decimated kelp forests in those areas. Since marine forests can sequester up to 20 times the amount of carbon per acre than their land-based equivalent, this is bad. That’s why this is one delicacy from the sea you don’t have to feel too guilty about eating.
Ingredients for Uni Pasta
- Uni – Uni pasta gets its flavor and color from sea urchin roe. It’s usually sold on small wooden pallets at Japanese grocery stores, but you may also find it packed in tubs of saltwater, or you may find them still in their spiny shells. Shucked uni is often treated with alum to help it retain its shape, but this can make it taste bitter. That’s why I recommend looking for untreated uni or shuck them yourself.
- Cream – Uni can be quite rich on its own, so I recommend using a cream with a relatively low butterfat content. Light cream (~20% fat) or half and half (12% fat) are two good options.
- Extra-virgin olive oil – Be sure to use a mild olive oil that’s buttery and round in flavor. You want to avoid spicy or green-tasting olive oils, which can make the uni taste bitter.
- Garlic – Since there are no herbs or spices in this sea urchin pasta, garlic joins the uni as the predominant flavor in the sauce.
- Anchovy – Anchovies get a back rap for being fishy and salty but used in small quantities; they act as a seasoning while boosting umami. When buying anchovies, I generally prefer those packed in jars with oil rather than cans. I also try and look for anchovies that are more pink or beige in color rather than gray or dark brown.
- Sake – Sake is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting rice. The fermentation process breaks down protein in the rice into its constituent amino acids, and these amino acids are what create the taste of umami. If you want to learn more about this, check out this series of videos about sake.
- Soy Sauce – Soy sauce is another ingredient that brings umami to the uni sauce while also acting as a seasoning.
- Pasta – In Japan, uni pasta is usually made with spaghetti, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t use another long pasta like linguine or bucatini. I generally prefer thicker spaghetti (1.9mm or thicker) or spaghettoni for dishes with a rich sauce like this.
- Shiso – Green shiso is a Japanese varietal of perilla that’s part of the mint family. It has broad saw-toothed leaves and a bright fragrance that’s hard to compare to other herbs. If you can’t find shiso near you, you can replace it with other herbs such as tarragon, parsley, chives, or scallions.
How to Make Uni Pasta
To make the uni cream, mash 3/4 of the uni with a fork or a whisk, and then stir in the cream. You can also do this by pulsing an immersion blender or food processor.
Bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil (1 teaspoon of salt per 10 US cups of water). Boil your pasta for two minutes less than the package directions (we finish cooking the pasta in the sauce). For the spaghetti I used, the boiling time was eleven minutes, so I set the timer for nine minutes.
When the timer is down to three minutes, add the olive oil, garlic, and anchovies to a frying pan over medium-high heat. Sautee the mixture until the garlic is fragrant and cooked through, but don’t let it brown.
Turn down the heat and carefully add the soy sauce. When the soy sauce has mostly evaporated, add the sake. There are two reasons for turning down the heat. The first is that adding a liquid to hot oil will spatter; the second is that the sudden release of alcohol vapors can cause it to ignite.
Turn the heat up to bring the mixture to a boil and cook it until it no longer smells like alcohol.
When the timer goes off, transfer the spaghetti directly to the frying pan with tongs. You also want to get a ladle of the boiling liquid into the pan. Continue cooking the pasta with the garlic and oil, stirring constantly.
Once there is very little liquid left, add another ladleful of boiling liquid to the pan and repeat until the pasta is cooked to your liking. This should take another 2-3 minutes.
To finish the pasta, add the uni cream and toss until the pasta is evenly coated, and the sauce has warmed up.
If the pasta starts to stick together or the sauce seems too thick, just add more boiling liquid to thin it out. Keep in mind that the spaghetti will continue to absorb the sauce as you plate it, so you want it to be fairly juicy.
Twirl the noodles in a bowl with tongs to plate it and garnish the uni pasta with the reserved fresh sea urchin and green shiso.
Other Japanese Pasta Recipes
Uni Pasta is the Japanese version of the Italian dish pasta con ricci di mare. It’s made with sea urchin roe, garlic, and spaghetti, and the main difference is that the Japanese version is made with a cream-based sauce, whereas the Italian original is made with a lighter oil-based sauce.
Uni Pasta is a 5-syllable name pronounced as follows (read the italicized parts).
u like oops
ni like knee
pa like pond
su like soup
ta like tonic
Like most foods, the taste of uni varies depending on where its from and how it was raised. Generally speaking, uni is creamy, sweet, and briny with a good dose of umami. It should smell like a clean ocean breeze, but it should not smell fishy. Uni that’s been processed with alum can taste bitter, so I recommend looking for one that is untreated.
Japanese uni pasta was likely inspired by the Italian dish spaghetti ai ricci di mare; it’s a popular summertime dish in the coastal regions of Puglia, Sardinia, and Sicily. Unlike the Japanese version, it’s made without cream, which makes it lighter.
- 150 grams uni (set 1/4 aside for garnish)
- ⅓ cup light cream (12-24% fat)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 7 grams garlic (1 large clove, finely minced)
- 5 grams anchovy filets (2 filets finely minced)
- ¼ cup sake
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 200 grams spaghetti
- 5 leaves green shiso (thinly sliced for garnish)
- Set aside 1/4 of the uni and then put the rest in a bowl and mash it with a whisk; it doesn’t need to be totally smooth. Then you want to gently whisk in the cream.
- Bring 10 cups of water to a boil and add 1 teaspoon of salt.
- Add the pasta and boil for 2 minutes, less than the time specified on the package. For example, my spaghetti takes 11 minutes to cook, so I’m going to set the timer for 9 minutes.
- About 3 minutes before the pasta is done, add a frying pan over medium-high heat and add the olive oil, garlic, and anchovy. Saute until the garlic is fragrant but hasn't started to brown yet.
- Turn down the heat and add the soy sauce; it will spatter, so be careful. When most of the liquid is gone, add the sake and then, turn the heat back up and bring the mixture to a boil to burn off the alcohol.
- When the timer for the pasta is up, transfer it directly to the pan with the garlic, and then add a ladleful of pasta water. Cook the pasta like risotto, adding additional pasta water as needed and stirring until it reaches your desired doneness (another 2-3 minutes).
- Stir in the uni and cream and toss to coat the pasta until it forms a creamy sauce.
- Serve the uni pasta topped with a few pieces of uni and garnish with fresh shiso cut into a chiffonade (thinly sliced).