Walking through a Chilean seafood market, surrounded by the freshly procured bounty from the country’s 2,600-mile-long coastline, you’re likely to find bins full of palm-sized balls covered in spikes. Flip one over and you’ll see a bulging, five-pointed star of orange, tongue-like flesh. This is the Chilean sea urchin, erizo rojo, one of the most popular ingredients in the nation’s cuisine.
This orange meat, the only edible part of the sea urchin, is actually its reproductive organs. In females, these produce another edible delicacy: roe. Many describe the meat’s flavor as fresh and briny (not to mention a bit slimy) with a creamy, rich mouthfeel. Erizo features prominently in many Chilean dishes, whether it’s stirred into stew (caldo or crema de erizo), mixed into the quiche-like tortilla de erizo, or blended into a sauce for fish. But the most popular and authentic way to eat it is raw, served fresh in the shell, with some onion, lemon, and coriander or cilantro. Eaten this way, erizo is typically an appetizer.
Sea urchins have been a part of the Chilean diet for centuries. They were eaten by the Mapuche, the fearless warrior tribe who fought back against Spanish rule after their arrival in the 1500s. Chilean literature shows that erizo was incorporated into the Spanish diet a century later.
Nowadays, although there are sea urchin farms (which are the largest in the world), many of the creatures are still harvested in the traditional way: by diving. Erizo fishermen take a small boat out into a bay, anchor it, then dive down to pluck the mature sea urchins from rocks and off the sandy bottom. When a bag is full, they tug on its string so those on the boat can pull it to the surface.
Because of its popularity and year-round harvest, erizo has become scarce in some areas of the Chilean coast, and in recent years the government has had to set specific times that the sea urchins can be harvested to keep the population stable.
Need to Know
Sea urchins can be purchased at almost any seafood market in Chile. Typically, they cost around 700 to 800 Chilean pesos (about $1.30) each.