"You need to watch them closely, they move around in small groups. Watch which way they all move and pick the one in the lead. It'll have all the meat, the others will mainly be feeding on its scraps."
This was my first lesson in sea urchin gathering, confidently delivered by Julian Burton, the GM of The Residence Zanzibar. He definitely seemed to know what he was talking about.
I had questions though - sea urchins moved? That was news to me. I thought they mainly spent their spindly lives rooted to the sea bed. Julian's spirited introduction to what I would be doing that afternoon raised other questions:
Is a sea urchin a vegetable or an animal? (It doesn't have a brain but it moves and has a nervous system).
Can I pick it up with my bare hands? (There were differing opinions).
How does one know where to find a sea urchin garden in the big wide Indian Ocean? (I will come to that later).
Either way I was excited. I was signed up for an afternoon of sea urchin gathering and an evening cooking class with The Residence Zanzibar's Executive Chef Raymond Beck, a Frenchmen who has spent much of his life perfecting the sunny, multi-layered cuisine of the island nations, including Mauritius and a stint in the Caribbean before heading to Zanzibar.
So with the unofficial theory portion completed and the key instructions committed to memory - take your time to watch them, pick the leader - we headed off on a boat to catch some sea urchins.
Zanzibar seems to have a LOT of them on its beaches. In fact swimming or walking on the beach without reef shoes is pretty foolish. Up north in Matemwe, certain areas of the sea bed were so full of the little spiny balls it looked like a thick dark carpet.
Down south in Kizimkazi where we now were, it was slightly different. There were a few sea urchins in a spot we tried to gather them from at first but the tide was coming in rapidly which made skin diving to get them in an incredibly salty and buoyant sea rather tricky.
We had to bring in the expert.
The expert being Captain Kipande, a man of the sea if ever I saw one. At more than 70, well salted by years in the sun and ocean, dressed in a wet suit with a net bag slung over his arm to stuff the sea urchins in, Captain Kipande definitely looked like the man who would help us find those sea urchins in time for dinner. We chugged out into the ocean for about 10-15 minutes until the Captain signaled we should stop.
"Captain Kipande is like a barracuda," the man steering our boat told us. "He can stay in the water all day - fishing, swimming, diving..."
That fact was obvious. With afternoon rapidly descending into dusk, Captain Kipande seemed nonplussed, diving straight into a pretty feisty current in a seemingly randomly picked spot in the Indian Ocean with no real markers to determine where along the coast we were.
"How does he know there will be sea urchins here?" I (foolishly) asked.
Of course, I was silly to ask. Because Captain Kipande obviously knew there were sea urchins there. Massive creatures, the size of which I had never seen before. These sea urchins were so big you could see bands of luminous purple spots running down their sides. And these ones definitely moved! Or sort of pulsed in their net bags.
Two dives later we were back on shore with a hefty haul of sea urchins and apron-ed up for our cooking class with Chef Raymond.
I had eaten sea urchins once before, in Japan. Plain and simple in the Japanese way of retaining the sacrosanct purity of ingredients. They tasted like more saline crab coral, in a way.
But Chef Raymond took a different approach. He combined the sea urchin with unique complements - a Tanzanian coffee-flavoured sabayon and smooth pumpkin puree for course one, star anise and cinnamon-scented sweet potato, sweet mango and a crustacean jelly created out of boiled lobster shells for course two, a Creole style soup studded with sea urchin roe for course three. In the typical elegant French style of cooking, he elevated one unusual ingredient to take it from being something most people would be a bit hesitant to try to not one, but three, incredibly exciting dishes.
Preparing the sea urchins was probably the most fun part of our class. You have to admit they are pretty theatrical creatures and due to the size of the ones we caught, quite a handful! Chef Raymond gave them a "shave" - cutting off the long spines with a scissor before snipping off a round lid at the top from which we could extract the meat. I had a go, holding the sea urchins in a towel before cutting one open. Their exoskeletons are pretty easy to cut open with a scissor, and feel a bit like cutting through thin corrugated cardboard.
"Captain Kipande obviously caught the ones in the lead," he said.
Sea urchins are sometimes called the pigs of the ocean. And if you cut one open you may start to understand why. Their insides are full of... stuff! I'm not sure what it is. Gritty little balls of what looks like hardened sand, a free floating liquid (which most chefs save, strain and use for deepening the flavour of sea food stocks and dishes) and the sort of grey matter similar to a the "dead men's fingers" you find in crabs. But in between all this "stuff" are the pieces of sea urchin meat - a roe-like beige-to-orange-coloured ingredient with a consistency almost like foie gras. This is what you should be looking to scoop out.
Prep done, sea urchin flesh retrieved, pumpkin and sweet potato puree prepared, sabayon whipped up and jelly left to cool in little dishes, we were ushered out of the kitchen to dress for dinner.
And what a spectacular dinner it was! A table for two was set up a little further away from The Dining Room - the hotel's main plantation-style restaurant - with only a brilliant moon and a night sky stretched over with a clear view of the Milky Way for company. A degustation menu of three sea urchin courses followed by white snapper on a bed of sauteed sweet potato leaves and a spiced chocolate and vanilla bombe for dessert followed. There were dulcet-toned serenaders singing Miriam Makeba's beautiful "Malaika" - incidentally my granny's favourite song. If this is how all sea urchin gathering trips end, I am definitely signing myself up for another one!
The sea urchin gathering experience was arranged as part of a hosted stay by The Residence Zanzibar, and could soon be a part of the resort's "Extreme Stay" experiences that offer adventurous travelers a chance to delve deeper into the local culture of the destination in a variety of ways such as photography courses, cooking classes and diving trips.
The 66 all-standalone-villa property turned out to be a relaxing spot to end our trip across Zanzibar. Set in sprawling, lush gardens fronted by a breezy ocean, the spacious and light-filled villas at The Residence Zanzibar do make you feel like you are coming home (to a pretty plush home at that - with each villa having a sizeable private pool that is long enough to actually swim rather than sit it, a generous patio, cool white and wood interiors and a bright glass-walled bathroom opening into a high-walled outdoor garden that will keep your privacy - and modesty - intact!)
Kizimkazi is apparently home to Africa's oldest mosque which, with just one day and sea urchin gathering adventures to indulge in, we sadly didn't have time to explore on this trip. The Residence does give each villa his-and-hers bikes to explore the grounds, a really nice touch.
Kizimkazi is also quite close to the Jozani Forest Reserve - home to the island's most famous primate, the Red Colobus monkey and one of its last remaining sanctuaries in the world. We saw a whole family of the furry red and white monkeys hanging out by the roadside on our way to the airport. An absolutely perfect end to a perfect trip in southern Zanzibar.
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