Spiny and delicious, sea urchins shine in a new documentary

NEW YORK (AP)—They are briny and sweet – once you get past those formidable spines. Biting into one has been likened to kissing a mermaid. Now they are ready for their close-up.

Sea urchins – which contain the prized meat the Japanese call uni – are the subject of a new documentary “The Delicacy,” which explores the complex relationship between humans and these porcupines of the sea.

“I look at this film as a nature documentary about people,” says director Jason Wise, who spent seven years creating his 70-minute ode to the scourge of all recreational swimmers’ feet.

“The Delicacy” features chefs who prize the sea urchin for its delicate, luxurious flesh and the fishermen who catch it by hand. It takes fascinating detours into the world of abalone fishing and the urchin’s deadly rival – sea otters.

This time, Wise dove with the sea urchin divers off the coast of California, but initially faced some difficulties convincing them to be filmed. “They don’t stand to gain much from being on camera,” he said.

One diver who helped is Stephanie Mutz, the rare full-time female sea urchin diver in California. She also has a master’s degree in tropical marine biology, and saw the film as a chance to educate viewers about sustainability and her specific fishery.

Mutz and her fellow divers don wetsuits and prowl the murky depths, plucking individual urchins from the bottom with a gloved hand and a pick, avoiding ocean currents, disorientation and sharks. It’s an ancient skill and labor-intensive.

“People have had a disconnect of where their food comes from and their relationships to the harvesters,” she said. “I’ve had conversations with customers where they didn’t know that we went into the water and picked them one by one.”

Americans commonly savor uni as sashimi or sushi. It can also be slathered on toast or added to pasta. But sea urchin is so versatile that one California chef makes an uni creme brulee and another turns it into ice cream.

“The Delicacy” premiered on May 7 on the streaming site SOMM TV, a subscription video-on-demand streaming platform dedicated to wine, food and travel.

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