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What is oyster sauce, exactly? How to use the Chinese staple

What is oyster sauce, exactly? How to use the Chinese staple

An accident in the kitchen led to the invention of one of China's most popular condiments, oyster sauce. Learn how to make it from scratch and cook with it

A brief history of oyster sauce

The story of this widely used, all-purpose savoury umami tasting sauce starts in 1888, when a restauranteur called Lee Kum Sheung from Southern China was making oyster soup.

As it was boiling away on the stove, he forgot about it long enough for it to go from a soup consistency down to a reduced thick gravy texture.

"He forgot about it long enough for it to go from a soup consistency down to a reduced thick gravy texture"

Curious to see what it tasted like, he tried some and, realising that it was delicious and he was on to something good, he started selling it as “Oyster Sauce”.

He founded the company Lee Kum Kee, and thus his oyster sauce soon became a larder staple in China and the rest of the world. The company now distributes the oyster sauce along with other condiments to more than 100 countries worldwide.

What is in oyster sauce?

Oyster sauce in gravy boat next to oysterHomemade oyster sauce can be made with boiled oysters, soy sauce and corn starch

The main ingredients include oyster extract, which in the best brands is a high percentage—as much as 90 per cent—as well as water, salt, sugar, modified corn starch and wheat flour, though you can get gluten-free versions. Some brands add a caramel colour.

The oysters, which are generally quality controlled right down to the algae they feed off, should be fresh and extracted on harvest day. Premium sauces tend to use two to three-year-old oysters.

While a homemade oyster sauce won’t taste like a shop bought, consistent sauce, it is fairly easy to make. Depending on how many oysters you have, you’ll have to adjust the ratio of the ingredients and prepare to taste.

The basic recipe involves boiling oysters in water, removing the scum floating on top, until the liquor has thickened and it is reduced by half. Then sieve the liquor into a pan, add corn-starch, salt, sugar and soy sauce, simmer the ingredients until it thickens and there you have it—best stored in an airtight container in a fridge.

Is oyster sauce healthy?

Oyster sauce contains no fat and few calories. It does however offer some protein from the oysters, as well as iron, calcium, zinc, magnesium and vitamin B12.

While there are benefits, most people won’t be consuming large quantities of the sauce, so the benefits are marginal and you’d be better off eating whole oysters.

"Oyster sauce contains no fat and few calories"

However, the nutritional benefits are still there, including improvements to your immune system which comes from the zinc, healthy brain function from the vitamin B12, increased energy from the iron, regulated blood sugar from the manganese and relief of the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis from the omega-3s.

How to cook with oyster sauce

Beef and broccoli stir fry with oyster sauceOyster sauce can savour many Chinese dishes, including beef and broccoli stir-fry

When marinating meat, the suggested ratio is, for every 100g of meat, to add one tablespoon of oyster sauce.

If you are adding oyster sauce to a recipe to season, it is recommended to add one to two tablespoons of oyster sauce per 250g of your ingredients, of course tasting as you cook to ensure the best result.

Oyster sauce can be used to marinate not only meat but also tofu, fish and vegetables, and it is great to add in a spoonful when cooking a stir-fry or stew.

Classic Chinese dishes that rely on the sauce include chicken chow mein, stir fried beef with oyster sauce, beef with broccoli and oyster sauce, special fried rice, spring roll fillings and dim sum as a seasoning.

Western classics that become more unctuous with the addition of oyster sauce include most stocks, dressings, glazes, soups, broths, gravy, shepherd’s pie and oyster mayonnaise. Some people also like oyster sauce on a fried egg or in scrambled eggs.

Did you know?

If you are allergic to oysters then the best substitutes for oyster sauce include soy sauce, which, although saltier and thinner, make a good replacement with a touch of sugar added.

Teriyaki sauce is a similar consistency to oyster sauce, while being a touch sweeter, so keep that in mind when replacing.

Lastly, for something reminiscent but vegan, mushroom sauce is excellent, as it creates the same umami flavour.

"In 1950 in Hong Kong, Lee Kum Kee Oyster Sauce was thought of so highly that it was bought for HK$1.80"

In fact, Lee Kum Kee sells a mushroom vegetarian stir-fry sauce, made with shiitake mushrooms, as they say it will “achieve a similar texture and appearance in your dishes to what oyster sauce does."

In 1950 in Hong Kong, Lee Kum Kee Oyster Sauce was thought of so highly that it was bought for HK$1.80—at that time the average local salary was HK$10 per month, so 20 per cent of that salary was spent on the prized sauce.

While nowadays the percentage spent is nowhere near that, oyster sauce is still considered a valuable pantry addition throughout the world.

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