Eating Tunicates (and Crow): A Long Overdue Update

by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA


In November of 1998, I published an article in Micscape titled “Tunicates With Salad On the Side”. In it I was interested not only in the tunicates, primarily Styela plicata, but in the various organisms that found refuge on the surfaces of tunicates (thus, the “salad” part). In that discussion, I said:

NO! I”m not suggesting that tunicates are a succulent delicacy and I have never read about any culture which uses them as food,...”

Well, it wasn’t long before I got 4 e-mails from people providing testimony to the contrary. So, way back then—16 years ago–I was beginning an update when my computer crashed–abominable machines!–and I lost all the information. Yesterday, I was going through old papers in a filing cabinet and discovered, with real pleasure, that I had printed off the 4 messages and can now correct my misstatement above.

The first message was from a woman named Deborah and I reprint it here.



You may be interested to know that violet tunicates (ascidians) are exported from Madagascar to be eaten in the S. Of France. Not sure what species the violet tunicate is, this may be the French name for them.

I came across your site when searching for tunicates using I was looking for pictures to show to a friend.




The scientific name for “violets” or “figue de mer” is Microscomos sabatieri. In some places they are eaten raw in salads.

All of the so-called edible species are, as near as I can determine, sea squirts which have leathery tunics or mantles. They are called sea squirts because when one is disturbed, it shoots out a jet of water from a siphon–rather like a rubber water pistol. Apparently, the “violets” enjoy some popularity in the Mediterranean. It is likely that the Madagascans eat them as well since they collect them in sufficient quantities to export them.

However, before you get too enthusiastic about indulging in violet tunicate sushi, I would remind you that the French eat SNAILS. Calling them “escargot” is, I suppose, designed to give you the illusion that you are having a rare delicacy rather than a slimy, hermaphroditic, perverse mollusk that shoots calcareous “love darts” into the genital area of its partner when copulating. Besides, whether you swallow them whole or manage to chew them, all you’re really tasting is the garlic, butter, and parsley sauce. Oysters are even worse–they’re sometimes served while still alive and here I’m in complete agreement with Woody Allen when he says:

I will not eat oysters. I want my food dead. Not sick. Not wounded. Dead.”

The second message was from a man named Garrett who had lived in north-eastern Japan for several years. Here is his e-mail:



I was running around the web and found your remarks at

thought you might like to know of one particular culture which does eat tunicates. In north-eastern (tohoku) Japan, the part of Honshu north of Sendai and mostly on the eastern seaboard the local fishermen and fishwives collect a variety of thick skinned reddish sea-quirt locally called ‘hoya’ or sea pineapple for its nodular appearance. The inner parts of the tunicate are quite soft and taste not unlike raw oyster, although they are quite a bit larger than oysters. The tough outer skin is cut open below the vents to remove these insides, and actually they are quite tasty rinsed in fresh seawater or with a little bit of beefsteak leaf or fresh wakame seaweed also. During the years I lived in the area I never saw them offered commercially beyond very local fishmonger markets, but did have them with some regularity in the houses of friends who were fishermen and local families.

Just thought you might be interested, and if you’re ever in the region and have the opportunity, give one a try.



Give one a try!? My 77 year-old stomach is not that adventurous and I would add that most of the seaweed I have encountered doesn’t tempt my palette either. I’m afraid when it comes to food, I am very much a spoiled American. From the time I was a child, I detested liver in any and every form and my parents used to keep saying “Try some more; it’s an acquired taste.” Why should one attempt to acquire a taste for something that one regards as intrinsically disgusting unless it’s a matter of survival?

The third message was from a young woman, Michelle Claire, from Australia, who had just returned from a vacation in Chile. Here is her assessment of “edible” sea squirts.


I have just returned from a holiday in southern Chile, where the tunicate piure (Pyura chilensis) is a seafood delicacy available in restaurants and also at markets (where they are sold threaded on a string, presumably cooked or dried, I am not sure). I tasted a fresh one in a restaurant in Puerto Varas and promptly spat it out. The unadorned, raw, brownish-red, mucous-covered creature was about the size of a large acorn, served in a big dish with about a dozen of its kind, and was without question the most horrible tasting thing I have tried to eat (and I consider myself an adventurous, unfussy eater). The penetrating smell stayed with us throughout the rest of the meal, the aftertaste repeated for several days.

It was incredibly strong and unfamiliar in flavour, quite unlike any mollusc I had ever eaten, and its flesh slightly resembled that of sea squirts known here in Australia as cunjuevoi which are used as fish bait. As we had ordered erizos (sea urchins) we thought for some time that the creatures must have been some ‘other type’ of urchin from those we were familiar with, but eventually we had to conclude that we had been served something else entirely. Translation lists of common shellfish did not include piure and it is only now with the aid of the internet that I have finally (I hope) worked out what it was that we ate (or rather didn’t).

I consider it inedible, but I’d probably say the same about olives if I’d first tried them at age 34?

Michelle Claire


I would love to see the astronomical research complex up in the Atacama desert in Chile, but I think I would give a pass to eating “piure”.

The fourth message was from a man in Texas, Don Hockaday, who had also sampled tunicates in Chile and here is his e-mail.

you said:

NO! I’m not suggesting that tunicates are a succulent delicacy and I have never read about any culture which uses them as food.

Tunicates are served in seafood restaurants in Chile. It is an acquired taste. They remind me of burnt rubber marinated in tincture of iodine.

If you would like to learn the scientific name of the species eaten, let me know and I will look it up.

I found your page because I am setting up to produce colonial tunicates on artificial substrates in tank culture. If you can suggest any web sites with information on this, I will appreciate if you share the URL with me.


Don Hockaday

South Padre Island, TX


I will assume that he was culturing them for environmental or research purposes rather than for culinary reasons. Tunicates are highly invasive and can become a significant problem in short order. Styela clava has invaded coastal areas in British Columbia and has become a major and costly nuisance. However, they are also excellent organisms for a variety of types of research.

So, there seems to be a consensus that sea squirts are an acquired taste and apparently occasionally a risky one. Some of these organisms can concentrate a rare element, Vanadium, in their bodies at 10,000,000 times the concentration in the surrounding sea water. There is concern about the toxicity of this substance and Styela clava has been recorded as producing violent allergic reactions. Vanadium compounds can cause severe liver damage.

The leathery sea squirts cannot be said to be attractive organisms. Here is a photograph which I took of the siphon area of a Styela plicata.

I don’t know that this particular species is eaten, but Styela clava, Halocynthia roretzi, Pyura chilensis, Microscosmos sabatieri are. Just to reinforce my statement that these are not aesthetically attractive creatures, I’ll refer you to a couple of Internet sites.

The “sea pineapple” or hoya consumed primarily in Korea and in some areas of Japan was described by journalist Nick Tosches as “something that could exist only in a purely hallucinatory eco-system” (Wikipedia). Descriptions of the taste have not been very flattering either. In the Lonely Planet guidebook for Korea, hoya is described as tasting like “rubber dipped in ammonia”.

The Chilean Pyura chinensis (piure) has been described as having a bitter taste and oddly several people have commented that it has a soapy texture. It is known as a “living rock” because of its outer appearance and very hard, tough tunic. The tunics can be very leathery indeed and I have some specimens of Styela clava which I finally had to use a pair of bone shears on to examine the internal structures. This Chilean specimen is sometimes opened up using a small saw or an extremely sharp hunting knife. Here is site which will show you the innards of Pyura-YUCK!!!

So, I was indeed in error–some people do eat tunicates. I am afraid, however, that I see it as act of desperation in spite of the contrary protestations that they are delicious, but then much of what we as humans eat is probably eaten out of desperation.

All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.

Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.


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