The Urchin and the Hala Tree

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Story by Shannon Wianecki | Photo by Mike Neubauer

maui sea urchins

An old Hawaiian proverb says, “Pala ka hala, momona ka hā‘uke‘uke.” (“When the hala ripens, the hā‘uke‘uke [sea urchin] is fat.”)

Hala trees (Pandanus tectorius) are among Hawai‘i’s most recognizable and versatile native plants. All along the coastline, bunches of spiky leaves erupt out of thick trunks perched atop prop roots. Weavers strip the long, narrow hala leaves (lau hala) of their spines and bend them into mats, hats, and bowls. Fishermen keep an eye on hala, too. The tree signals the best time to forage for two favorite ocean delicacies.

Hala fruits look like arboreal pineapples: round and segmented. When they break apart and fall to the ground, it’s time to harvest hā‘uke‘uke, or helmet urchins. These deep-purple sea urchins congregate on wave-battered rocks, where they creep along and graze on algae. Unlike their prickly cousins who wave away potential predators with needle-sharp spines, these echinoderms armor themselves with a smooth, plated dome. This helmet is perfect for withstanding the high-impact surf zone.

Two to three times a year, the coastal animals grow “fat,” or reproductively mature. Fishermen crack the urchin’s helmet to reveal its gonads: five glistening, golden segments that are scooped out and eaten raw or cooked. Urchin aficionados crave the creamy texture and distinctive, sweet and briny flavor, which varies according to the animal’s diet and the water temperature where it was harvested. Hā‘uke‘uke is one of several edible urchins popular around the world, particularly in Italy, France, Japan and Hawai‘i.

Humans aren’t the only ones who’ve discovered the joy of sea urchin gonads, either. A second Hawaiian proverb reveals: “Pala ka hala, momona ka uhu.” (“When the hala ripens, the uhu [parrotfish] is fat.”) Parrotfish grow plump snacking on sea urchins, and smart fishermen know how to hook an uhu using hā‘uke‘uke as a lure. Their efforts result in a double feast: raw urchin and roasted parrotfish. So ‘ono (delicious)!


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