The World is Your Oyster (Sauce)

Posted by: Ren

I get myself immersed in various food trends, admittedly more self-imposed than from any specific current foodie fads. I definitely went through a cake-decorating phase (much to the delight of friends), an Indian Food phase (many failed attempts there), and a cheese and wine phase (though, it seems this phase is on-going). It’s not uncommon for me to get fixated on a dish, or ingredient, or cuisine, and explore all its nuances and possibilities, both in my kitchen and around restaurants and markets wherever I find myself.

Growing up in a Chinese household, there were many Chinese dishes eaten for many meals, so it was never something I thought to be terribly interesting nor exotic as a young adult. I much preferred the fascinating world of French cuisine, Thai cuisine, Japanese cuisine, Persian cuisine…basically, anything but Chinese cuisine. That is, until I found myself living in Southern China in 2010.

Suddenly, my eyes were opened to a whole new side of Chinese food. Dim sum, roast pork, and banquet dinners were just the beginning. In Southern China, they claim that locals eat anything with four legs except for a table, anything that flies but a plane. And when you look at the cuisine from the Guangdong province (historically called Canton), it’s pretty telling. Ground chicken made into sweet and savory cookies are a strange concoction, sure, but completely palatable compared to roast baby pigeon, stir-fried duck tongue, and stewed bullfrog hot pot. At the outdoor markets, stalls are always teeming with the season’s freshest greens and exotic vegetables, next to seafood vendors who beckon with their catch of the day; spiny crustaceans resembling, however possible, shrimp, lobster, and crab all in one. Street stalls hawk dried goods to take home in little plastic baggies; from fermented black beans, to marinated mustard greens, to soybeans and millet grains, to dried shrimp and scallops and oysters, these last three which made up the trifecta of many a dishes’ flavourings down in Southern China.

It was here, in Southern China, in the Guangdong province in which I lived for two years, that oyster sauce was supposedly invented. Only the crazy and all-consuming Southern Chinese would infuse dried seafood into a sauce, pour it over vegetables, and proclaim call it a local delicacy (and rightfully so).


Oyster it up!

Traditionally, oyster sauce was made by slowly simmering oysters (and sometimes, scallops), often the dried variety, in water for hours on end. The juices would caramelize into a thick and brown, intensely piquant sauce, used in noodle and rice dishes, on top of vegetables, and stir fried into meats. Today, fresh oyster sauce is a rarity, being replaced instead by longer-lasting brands that ship better and store in the pantry for longer. Though good-quality Oyster sauces can be found, many more have been produced with a base of sugar and salt and thickened with corn starch, then flavored with oyster extracts and flavorings, and in this way are able to be produced more quickly and for less money. Regardless of your brand of choice, however, oyster sauce, like it’s more popular sister soy sauce, can be increasingly found in not only specialty Asian supermarkets, but also more general supermarkets around the world.

Oyster sauce is extremely salty, provides an excellent umami quality to many ingredients, and to the sensitive in palate, can be deemed “too fishy” (depending on the brand). But even the most sensitive can adapt his or her tongue to the wonderful taste of Oyster sauce, if given time.

MealDish offers some great Asian-style dishes, including numerous recipes that include this lovely condiment. Oyster sauce does pack quite a flavor punch, however, so it’s best paired with hearty meats and fish with more texture, such as pork, beef, and salmon. It also pairs well with vegetables as delivery vessel, ranging from bok choy and broccoli to Chinese greens and cabbage. My personal favorite recipes from the Mealdish archives include the grilled salmon with ginger and oyster sauce paired with bok choy, as well as this fried tofu, choy sum, and baby corn dish, both of which fare well to satisfy any of you who are going through an asian-style phase of your own, or simply if you like to spice up your next meal!

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