Updated: Feb 24
This family-run restaurant is transforming sea urchin from an environmental dilemma into a delicacy.
Author: Sofia Levin
An understated warehouse in the industrial backstreets of Glen Waverley, some 23 kilometres southeast of Melbourne's CBD, is not where you'd expect to find a showcase of the world's most expensive ingredients.
Yet at experiential restaurant Uni Boom Boom, the Teoh family are serving affordable Australian sea urchin in an attempt to familiarise the public with this delicacy, while simultaneously preserving coastal biodiversity.
Customers dine beside fridges stacked with plump, orange sea urchin roe, or uni in Japanese, and glass cabinets displaying dried edible bird's nest, abalone, fish maw and sea cucumber-like precious jewellery. Cultural predilections mean that most of Uni Boom Boom's clientele are Chinese, but Italian customers also visit for a taste of riccio di mare.
Restaurant manager Johnson Teoh believes people are becoming increasingly familiar with sea urchin, regardless of their heritage. "Uni has the taste of the ocean and a hint of sweetness and saltiness," he says. "Just like blue cheese, some find it fascinating and others think it's crazy."
"Just like blue cheese, some find it fascinating and others think it's crazy."
The signature don comes with 100 grams of sea urchin on white rice ($45), while the more up-market Ultimate Uni Boom Don features 200 grams of premium grade uni ($128). You can also order uni don with other luxury ingredients, like Hokkaido scallops, toro tuna belly, unagi and foie gras. Sea urchin virgins might start with uni mixed through baked cheese and served on rice ($20), as the cooking process softens the oceanic taste.
Jessica Teoh, Johnson's sister and managing director of Pacific Sea Urchin, explains that Uni Boom Boom is a place to spotlight Australian sea urchin, opposed to being a money maker. "We don't really profit from each meal," she tells SBS Food.
The Teohs originally opened the warehouse in 2017 to display quarantine-approved imported bird's nest, a family business started by Jessica and Johnson's grandfather, father, aunt and cousin in Malaysia in 1981.
"We were looking to invest in other businesses. We found out that not many people were processing sea urchin, and that doing so helps the ocean because they are actually [pests] that destroy the habitat of other sea life," says Jessica.
Long-spine sea urchin repeatedly makes headlines for destroying underwater ecosystems. Just this month, the Tasmanian government announced a $5.1 million fund to combat the devastating echinoderms, which reduce abalone numbers and trade.
Sea urchin processor and seller Pacific Sea Urchin processes more than 2,000 kilograms of uni from Tasmania, New South Wales and Victoria per week. Eighty per cent of that is exported to Asia and America and the rest is distributed to fish markets, fishmongers like Clamms Seafood in Melbourne, restaurants like Nobu and Sokyo in Sydney, and of course, Uni Boom Boom.
Despite sea urchin's delicacy status overseas and among certain cultures, diving for the pests carries a stigma.
"The funny thing is, some divers don't tell anyone they are sea urchin divers, they say they are abalone divers," says Jessica Teoh.
"They don’t feel proud. I hope one day we can change that."