What is Oyster Sauce?
Oyster sauce is a thick, dark brown, very umami, somewhat sweet sauce that is made from oyster extract. It has a complex caramel flavor that doesn’t taste very fishy, so it doesn’t overwhelm a dish. The key ingredients of oyster sauce are oyster extract, salt, sugar, and water. Cornstarch, caramel coloring, and MSG are sometimes added as well.
Legend has it that oyster sauce was invented completely by accident in the late 1800s in what is now the Chinese province of Guangdong, which neighbors Hong Kong. A food stall owner forgot about a big pot of oyster soup and let it boil for hours. Instead of a delicate and thin oyster soup, owner Lee Kum Sheung was left with a mysteriously thick and gloopy oyster paste. He didn’t want to waste it, and was pleased to find out that it could be used as a rich and delicious sauce on rice. Voilà, oyster sauce was born. The entrepreneurial Lee Kum Sheung went on to bottle up and sell his oyster sauce far and wide.
Although oyster sauce originated in the southwest of China, it rapidly took off and found its way into neighboring cuisines.
Sauces That Are Similar to Oyster Sauce
Cooking sauces that are distinct from oyster sauce but may seem similar at first glance are: fish sauce, hoisin sauce, and soy sauce.
Fish sauce is made of just fermented fish and salt, so it has a stronger flavor than oyster sauce. Hoisin sauce is close to oyster sauce, but it substitutes the oyster base with a soybean base. It also has a more reddish color due to the chili powder and five-spice powder that is in it. Soy sauce also shares the salty umami of oyster sauce, but is much less complex in flavor, as it is just fermented soybeans, wheat, and salt. A mushroom-based oyster sauce is a great oyster sauce substitute for vegetarians.
What are Good Uses for Oyster Sauce?
Whether you realize it or not, you have probably eaten oyster sauce at Chinese restaurants in dishes like beef and broccoli, bok choy stir fry, wonton soup, or chow mein noodles.
Oyster sauce gives a deep and distinct flavor to main dishes such as stir frys, noodles, and soups. It can also be used as a garnish to drizzle over side dishes of meat, vegetables, and tofu. Oyster sauce can also be used as a dipping sauce, a marinade, or a gravy.
Due to its unique umami flavor and versatility, many other cuisines have absorbed oyster sauce into their culinary customs. It is now a Japanese grocery staple, and found in the kitchens of home cooks across Asia. Countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Cambodia boast delicious recipes involving oyster sauce.
A Few Recipes That Use Oyster Sauce
You can’t go wrong with the following main courses whose recipes you can easily find online.
Cantonese stir fry noodles are usually comprised of beef, udon noodles, a medley of vegetables, vegetable oil, soy sauce, and oyster sauce. Organic udon noodles can be ordered directly from Bokksu’s online grocery store, along with Kikkoman Oyster Sauce and Kikkoman Soy Sauce.
Yakisoba is a popular Japanese grilled noodle dish that tastes great with a little oyster sauce. You need a yellow noodle such as ramen, green cabbage, carrots, onion, and pork belly or bacon. Other ingredients to have on hand are: vegetable oil, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, oyster sauce, ketchup, honey, Japanese pepper, sliced pickled ginger, and dried nori and scallions.
In Thai food, a sweet-hot garlic dipping sauce is commonly used. Oyster sauce is one of the ingredients to make this iconic sauce. The sweet-hot garlic sauce is a crucial ingredient to go with gai yang, the Thai-style chicken dish that is widely sold in street stalls and now enjoyed worldwide.
One Vietnamese recipe that calls for oyster sauce is sweet and sour pork spare ribs. A vegetable stir fry made with bell peppers, onions, and pineapple is a nice accompaniment to the ribs. And don’t forget the Jasmine rice.
Where to Buy Oyster Sauce
You can order groceries online at Bokksu Market! Find oyster sauce and many other essential Asian grocery items on Bokksu’s online Asian grocery store.
By Megan Taylor Stephens