Uni Spaghetti. Poverty Cuisine on Japanese Sawtelle. Blue Marlin Japanese Fusion Restaurant in West Los Angeles, CA.
Dirty, sexy, yummy.
When you eat uni or sea urchin, you're not only ingesting the roe or eggs of the sea urchin, you're in fact also eating the female gonads or ovaries. Typically golden-orange in color, the flavor of sea urchin is intensely oceanic with a unique sea sweetness. It's savory richness makes this odd echinoderm perfectly suitable for flavoring bland edible delivery devices like pasta.
Italy's coastal region of Puglia or Apulia, with the Ionian Sea to the South and the Adriatic at the North-East, also dubbed the "heel" of the boot shaped country, is a historically embattled and forsaken area. Apulian cuisine reflects both this history and the region with cucina povera or the cuisine of poverty.
This type of cuisine is born not from necessity nor simplicity but of absolute desperation due to foreign invaders (the Apulian region's location made it highly vulnerable) and other dire circumstances that forced the Apulians to cook and eat what was not pillaged by the enemy. The scary and spiky sea urchin happened to be one of those things that the villains wanted nothing to do with.
But when some nameless, impoverished and starving Apulian fruitfully figured out what to do with sea urchin, it was absolute food alchemy.
Even more fortunate for the destitute saps of the Apulia are their fertile land and sunny climate which assist in cultivating some of the highest quality produce for Italy as well as part of Europe. The Apulia region is where much of Italy's top olive oils originate. With two seas making up its borders, the ocean supplies abundant marine goodness from fish to mollusks and, of course, sea urchin. So even the poverty stricken can enjoy a little bit of the good life, at least gastronomically.
Spaghetti ai ricci di mare is the pinnacle of poverty cuisine. It's a simple spaghetti al dente tossed with a sea urchin sauce made up of sea urchin (vividly described in Italian as a sea hedgehog), olive oil, garlic and pasta water.
The Sawtelle mainstay Blue Marlin Japanese Fusion Restaurant tries its hand at cucina povera with a sautéed uni spaghetti and spinach. Although sea urchin has gone Hollywood and is no longer considered peasant food (along with a long list of other items that include oxtail, but I lament and digress), Blue Marlin offers the entrée at a pretty cheap $11.50.
To paraphrase an old kiddie tune, on top of spaghetti all covered with gonads, the Blue Marlin's rendition of spaghetti ai ricci di mare cleverly includes two tiers of flavors and textures that lend this relatively simple platter more depth and therefore greater satisfaction.
Saddling the sea urchin is a hearty heap of sautéed spinach. And crowning this fusion dogpile is the sole Japanese element, a topping of fine strips of toasted nori.
The combination is a heady harmony of flavors and textures that result in instant addiction to the Blue Marlin's uni spaghetti.
The delicious deception created around this pasta plate is that it is meatier than it actually is because the only animal protein found here are the creamy, dreamy tranches of sea urchin scattered about the pasta.
But then, the crunchy nori with its full umami flavors and the dense, slightly earthy spinach taken with a swirl of perfectly al dente spaghetti, all dripping with the impossibly deep savoriness of the sea, inspire visions of a much heartier meal that only a feudal lord could afford. Perhaps this is what poverty cuisine is all about — food that makes you feel richer than you really are.
What was extraordinarily rich as well was the pasta's broth-like sauce, practically a doppelganger for the briny and savory soup found inside the body of a boiled Dungeness crab. It's thickened with pasta water and clings to the spaghetti like a co-dependent lover pulling all of the other ingredients tightly together.
I absolutely love this uni spaghetti or spaghetti ai ricci di mare or whatever you want to call this poverty food. All I know is that I'll eat it over and over again and be a richer man for it.
2121 Sawtelle Blvd
West Los Angeles, CA