Oyster Sauce - 蚝油 - ซอสหอยนางรม

I had been poking around for some oyster inspiration the past few months and was sadly lacking in imagination and creativity.  Visited Placerville to explore an updated Hangtown Fry post, which is certainly still to come, have some oyster takes on classic cocktails I'd still like to make for others, and I really want to do a deep-dive into the Chesapeake Oyster Wars at some point.  All great stuff I'd love to explore, but nothing was really motivating me much beyond just thought.

However, an old and reliable social media addiction ended up providing just what I needed.  I was scrolling through some older posts of one of my favorite Instagram feeds, TasmanianAritisan, envying his skill, knowledge, and resources to play with all things foraged, pickled, and preserved.  His charcuterie is what drew my attention at first, though he has fun with all sorts of things from smoked salts to his own bottarga.  And sure enough, a February 2018 post led me right to his Homemade Oyster Sauce.

I immediately felt this was something I needed to do and wondered why I hadn't yet.  Little did I know the culinary, and more so, cultural Pandora's box that it would open.  Disclaimer: I am by no means an authority and genuinely encourage civil discourse and discussion around this and all topics, a thing the US is in dire shortage of right now.

To start, I guess, what exactly is oyster sauce?  I'm sure you are all familiar with your local Chinese takeout's beef and broccoli.  The predominant flavor in that is most often oyster sauce.  It is a "viscous, dark brown condiment made from oyster extracts, sugar, salt and water thickened with corn starch," commonly used in Cantonese, Vietnamese, Thai, and other Asian cooking.  A rich, sweet yet savory sauce with a strong ocean salinity and low-tide aromas (in the good way) used to flavor a variety of dishes.  You may even have a bottle of the classic Safeway supplied Lee Kum Kee or Dragonfly versions in your fridge.  This, admittedly, is my Westernized concept of oyster sauce.  Francis Chan, the CMO of Lee Kum Kee, has even said of their oyster sauce recipe that "minor adjustments are made to suit the tastes of specific markets," a common practice it seems in Americanizing ethnic cuisines

Shockingly, these six bottles cost less than $15 combined.  Pretty
reasonable for a taste test of six oyster sauces.  Kikkoman and Lee
Kum Kee's Premium were best (the two on the far left).
I think Brandon Jew of Mister Jiu's, a contemporary California spin on Cantonese cuisine, nailed it in saying "oyster sauce is like if fish sauce and barbecue sauce had a child, a stinky yet sweet one."

The discovery or creation of oyster sauce seems to be commonly held, from my limited research, as that back in the 1880s, Lee Kum Sheung, founder of the aforementioned Lee Kum Kee brand, was cooking oysters in some fashion, soup or other, for customers at his teahouse in Guangdong, China.  He accidentally forgot about the oysters, and, to joyous surprise, came back to a thickened, salty-sweet caramelized brown sauce.  I've also read that true oyster sauce has no added ingredients, it's just "oyster essence" concentrated and caramelized.  

From my understanding of what oyster sauce is, I don't think either claim true.  No matter how low, slow, and high volume, oyster "essence," "juice," or "stock" doesn't seem to concentrate or caramelize into the thick, sweet sauce we're familiar with.  Maybe you could end up with a teaspoon, or maybe I'm just an inept saucier.  Similarly, I don't think the desirable flavor or viscosity of what I know oyster sauce to be is achievable without at least soy sauce, sugar/molasses, and corn starch/natural or pureed thickeners.  However, I had also read that traditional oyster sauce doesn't have the viscosity we're so familiar with from bottled versions.  I certainly wouldn't know, just going off commercially available ones.  Also, how the fuck can actual oyster sauce be sold at a profit for literally $1.99?  What is oyster "extract" and how is it so cheap?  I'm sure actual oysters are somewhere in the process, right, and those by no means are a casual bargain. 

Thus, in making my own oyster sauce, I realized there was a lot to consider.  Attempt the purist approach?  Go for as rich and robust a sauce as possible, regardless of tradition?  What would really constitute it being "authentic," "homemade," or "from scratch?"  A simple Google for "homemade oyster sauce" will most frequently give you some iteration of the following:
  • Steep two to four dozen fresh oysters (possibly chopped up to impart flavor more quickly) in their liquor and water for anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes.  Aromatics can be included here.
  • Strain the resulting liquid, discarding the rest (more on that later) and return to a saucepan.
  • Reduce further and finish with some combination of light or dark soy sauce, sometimes brown sugar, syrup, or molasses, and optionally thicken with cornstarch. 
I figured I would at least have to do what the most frequently reported recipes call for.  So, with 4 dozen Maro-ishi oysters and knife in hand, off to the races I went.  Pure coincidence on the oyster name, by the way.  They're from Washington and I wasn't going for any theme.

It was a damn shame to have to cook these Maro-ishi oysters cause they
were pretty perfect on their own.  4 dozen quickly became
just 3 before they hit the pot.
3 dozen freshly shucked and roughly chopped oyster meats and their liquor, garlic, and ginger simmered in water for approximately 30 minutes.  The liquid quickly took on a strong "oyster essence," similar to clam juice in both aroma and slight translucence.  I strained this through coffee filter (didn't have cheesecloath) and returned to the pot.  Reduced further, to about 8 oz, added in soy sauce and molasses, and the final result: homemade oyster sauce.  It was about as thick as Coca-Cola and the same color, but the taste was spot on.  A little funkier, deeper in oyster flavor, and pretty close to what I was hoping for.  I chose to exclude any thickeners for fear of tainting the flavor. 

A few things bothered me about this approach, though.  First and foremost, making a sauce this way is an awful waste of valuable oyster meat.  It's pretty obvious this isn't the industrial way it happens given the low price tag on bottled oyster sauces.  All of them list some variation of oyster extract, concentrate, or flavor, probably obtained from other commercial operations involving oysters and their by-products.  They don't use meats solely for the sauce; nor do they spend the hours it takes to reduce but rather add cornstarch, cellulose, and caramel for color and consistency.  

Chan Moon Kee:  Oyster Extractives
Dragonfly:  Natural Oyster Flavor
Kikkoman:  Oyster Juice Concentrate
Second, it made me reconsider the storied Lee Kum Sheung and his credit of having discovered oyster sauce.  Perhaps he did forget about cooking some sort of oyster soup only to find it reduced into the sweet, rich sauce we now know.  His founding of Lee Kum Kee to follow and commercial production of oyster sauce with actual oyster meats may have even been possible back in the 1880's as they were so cheap and abundant.  However, I still don't see those meats being overcooked and discarded or, in some fashion, being only used to make sauce.  Cantonese cuisine is celebrated for its resourcefulness.  Now popular food trends like nose-to-tail are not new to Chinese cooking.  Nothing goes to waste.

Dried oysters in San
Francisco's Chinatown
That being said, dried or preserved oysters are a popular part of the Cantonese pantry and used in many dishes, most notably the Chinese New Year Ho See Fatt Choy.  Part of preserving oysters is often first blanching them in water then sun drying them.  Once the meats are blanched, removed from the water, and set to dry, you're left with an umami-laden oyster juice.  It makes most sense this resulting liquid would not be thrown away.  Instead, it could be cooked down, concentrated, and made into oyster sauce.  Mind you this not of my own finding.  I learned of it in a few other recipes I did come across.  I can easily see this having been done for centuries rather than the accidental discovery of overcooked oysters resulting in the famed sauce. 

Ok then, oyster sauce take two.  From a brief conversation I had with Brandon Jew at his restaurant and listening to his interview here, I had a new approach in mind.  I didn't have any fresh oysters left to blanch and dry, but did have 4 dozen oyster shells and scant meat that remained on them.  How cool would it be to achieve a full and robust oyster sauce just from the by-product of shucked oysters?  I made an oyster stock to then be reduced for hours.  And damn did it take hours.  I'm scared to see my PG&E bill this month.  A near gallon of stock slowly became two cups or so, though it really didn't have a deep oyster essence.  It was more like mildly briny calcium water.  Luckily, my curiosity of all things oyster finally paid off in a previously purposeless purchase of 8 oz of dried oysters from Chinatown.  Into the still-reducing stock they went and simmered away for another 30 mins.  The result was about a cup of full flavored oyster concentrate.  I added in soy sauce and molasses, and now had another homemade oyster sauce.  Consistency was still thin, but this version was definitely better than the first.    

Final Product:  Take Two
Great.  Research, done.  Tasty oyster sauce, check.  Now what?  I humbly concede I know very little about DIY Chinese or Asian cooking in general.  Yeah, I have read and eaten as much as the next person and have my thoughts and opinions; however, I wanted to do something a bit more special with this oyster sauce.  Enter Rizzi of Global Eats.  Former Vietnam resident of two years, two time world circumnavigator, chef, committed student of all things culinary and cherished friend.  Most importantly, homeboy knows his noodles.  That and he's always down to blast the BTUs and fire up his wok.  After my quick and embarrassingly confusing trip to 99 Ranch Market for other ingredients, we were working away on some lo mein.  By we, I of course mean he cooked and I watched and took shitty Android photos.  I will not apologize for owning a phone half the price of an iPhone that texts, emails, Googles, and operates Angry Birds equally as well.  After thirty minutes of prep and cooking, we sat down to a delightful rendition of Cantonese style lo mein with dried shrimp "cotton candy," Rizzi's home fermented gai choy, minced pork, nappa cabbage, mung bean sprouts and garlic chives.  All well-seasoned with homemade oyster sauce, a little pork and chicken stock, and some sugar.  The best part though, as always, was the conversation.  We explored a lot, and this is where things get a little sticky.

First, what does it really mean if something is "homemade" or "made from scratch?"  Which was my oyster sauce?  There's certainly a differentiation between the two, the former being more forgiving, but where is the line drawn?  A Bisquick strawberry shortcake may be "homemade" yet it's definitely not "from scratch."  I see calling that shortcake "homemade" a disservice to the word and a false representation.  Sure, it took effort, but come on, pretty minimal.  I bring effort into the matter only because these phrases, "homemade" and "from scratch," carry the connotations of pride and respect to be paid, right?  Nobody honestly says "hey, this is my homemade chili, all from scratch" without a little hope for some sort of recognition.  If we can agree on that, we can further think on "from scratch."  For the strawberry shortcake, if you opted for mixing your own flour, shortening, salt, and baking powder, now you're cooking from scratch, correct?  Did you mill the flour from your home garden grown wheat or render the shortening from your own pig?  Sure, an extreme side of the discussion, though I believe important to consider.  What about using canned tomatoes for homemade marinara sauce?  Did you grow and can them yourself?  Probably still from scratch if not.  What if they were fire-roasted canned tomatoes rather than just plain?  Canned tomatoes with added Italian seasonings?  Both still from scratch?  I don't mean to challenge but rather explore these thoughts.  Again, is a hot dog a sandwich?  At the end, you're the one deciding these definitions for yourself and whatever rings honest and true to you is probably best.  

This still all carried into a larger conversation of who is the authority on this: "from scratch" - "authentic" - "homemade" - "proper" - and so on.  Here we were, two white boys, working with "homemade" oyster sauce and making "authentic" Cantonese style noodles.  Or were we?  Cultural appropriation of food has been hot topic as of late.  The clean Chinese controversy in New York City, the Portland taco chefs, and Andrew Zimmern, well, just being a straight up dick immediately come to mind.  Seriously, how someone who eats like a ruminant chewing the cud became a celebrity TV chef will forever be beyond me. 

Just broaching the subject is dangerous.  I've previously written about how fiercely defining people's culinary identities are, so trying to say what's "proper" or "authentic" is even dicier.  Does it have to be only ingredients traditional to that cuisine?  Tomatoes are native to the Americas, so what is "authentic" Sicilian cuisine without them?  American as apple pie?  Hmm, apples are from Kazakhstan.  What about just using the traditional techniques?  Al pastor came from early 20th century Lebanese immigrants who brought the shawarma style of spit roasting meats with them to Mexico.  Pork isn't native to Mexico either.  Much of what we see as modern day cooking has it's foundations in French technique.  Foods and cuisines are constantly evolving and changing, so it's hard to pin down what's authentic and what's fusion.  Is one right and one wrong?  Some amazing things have happened from flouting tradition. Don't get me wrong, I put high value in the classic and can be hater of many things fusion.  Just take the sushi burrito or Lil Nas X's Old Town Road, for example.  At the same time, cronuts are amazing.  Some things work, some things don't, and that's ok.  

I am also very comfortable with my hypocrisy on this.  I will talk shit on Señor Sisig til blue in the face (both for not really being sisig and for being a food truck that somehow doesn't accept cash), then, turn around and make Old El Paso tacos for myself at home.  I suppose it's what I see as the hoodwinking nature of these places that pisses me off.  You know, sort of like how Panera Bread and Kind bars market like they are healthy options.  Just that people aren't really getting what they were sold on and leave with some false sense of accomplishment in their dining choice.  Old El Paso and Chili's don't give off that same vibe.  They just are what they unapologetically are, and for some reason I like that.  (Also, sorry Señor Sisig, I actually do think your California burritos are pretty tasty, but would still go for some Chili's boneless buffalo wings first).

This brings me back to the bigger point.  Who the hell am I to bash Señor Sisig and Sushirrito? How do you determine who the "authority" is on all this?  Who cooks what "authentically?" What qualifies a person as a culinary expert?  Can people not immerse themselves completely in another culture's cooking and learn its nuances and traditions to earn the credibility?  I totally understand that a person foreign to a cuisine will never fully grasp hand wrapping tamales negros for Christmas as a child or the taste of Nonna's minestrone when they were a kid.  At the same time though, I'm Irish-American, and by no means an expert on corned beef and cabbage (which is funnily enough not even Irish).  It really lies in a person's dedication to the craft.  Is Ed Lee not an expert on Southern cuisine?  Is Andy Ricker of Pok Pok not an authority on Northern Thai cooking after decades of study?  Was Rene Redzepi's Tulum pop-up not one of the coolest things you've ever followed on Instagram?  I'm a big fan of how Ken Albala from the University of the Pacific profiles it on his food rant blog

It's how people both seek and spread their culinary education, and their motivations in doing so.  It's undeniable that cultural appropriation exists.  The world is an unjust place where people have stolen ideas and identities and, only because they come from a place of means, are able to profit from them with no acknowledgement of their origins.  Fuck those people.  But to go en vogue with our current public shaming call-out culture and label all as culinary colonialism just seems misguided.  It comes full circle with the absence of civil discourse we so sorely need right now.  These proclamations of "eww, that's not real sushi" or "this is true barbeque" only prove to be divisive and insulting.  "I'm right, you're wrong."  Andrew Zimmern calling Midwest Chinese restaurants "horseshit" or Arielle Haspel say we serve "clean" Chinese food.  This constant need for people to one-up each other by having a "more authentic" experience.  True experts admit they'll never know enough.  They share and celebrate their passion rather than mock or criticize others attempting it.  They respectfully discuss, disagree, and acknowledge when they are wrong.  They're always learning, reading, questioning, studying, tasting, testing. 

I look forward to more people both candidly and tactfully talking about topics like this.  How else can we understand other's thoughts and opinions if we do not?  More importantly, I look forward to making homemade oyster sauce again, and again, and again.  It was a real adventure from the serendipitous oyster pic I stumbled across to learning all I now know, or rather don't know, about oyster sauce and its history.  And hey, if Malcolm Gladwell is right, I'm now just 9,990 hours shy of becoming an expert at it.

The SF Oyster Nerd  



Manhattan Clam Chowder

I grew up going to my Aunt Pauline's beach house in Wildwood Crest, New Jersey every summer as a kid in the early 90's, but hadn't been back in years.  I was lucky enough to fly back East for a similar summer trip to the Jersey Shore, recently.  South Jersey Shore, to be exact.  Water Ice, not Italian Ice.  Hoagies, not Subs.  Phillies, not Yankees.  And definitely no Snooki and no The Situation.  Despite the more-than-a-decade long hiatus, it felt as it always had.  A lot of my greatest memories came flooding back.  Sure, some things had changed.  It's not a Colonial Williamsburg-esque time warp type of place.  iPhone X's replaced Morotorla Razrs, Fireball shots instead of Cuervo, and Migos blaring at the bars instead of 50 Cent.  But the staples...aromas of salt water taffy mixed with low tide, trite Treasure Island themed mini golf courses, and mom'n'pop stores that seem to never quite be open, despite it being 1pm on a Tuesday...were all just the same.

That being said, of all the boogie-boarding and monopoly games to be had, there was one thing in particular I had my mind set on. My Aunt Pauline, the now 83 year old matriarch of the family, was spending the whole summer with her daughter and grandkids at the shore in Avalon.  The house we rented was only a few blocks away, so I knew this would be the perfect time to learn one of our most cherished family recipes, Manhattan Clam Chowder, from the original gangster herself.

Ok, but first, dare I ask, what is a chowder?  After all, there are hundreds of types of chowder.  New England, being the most famous, is clam and dairy based.  Then there's Manhattan, Rhode Island, Hatteras, Chesapeake, New Jersey, Minorcan, all of which are clam-centric, but vary in their base and viscosity.  Next you've got Bermuda Fish Chowder, Corn Chowder, Southern Illinois Beef Chowder, Potato Chowder, and these are just dishes that carry the name.  All very different.  Some firmly believe chowder has to be thick and milk based.  Are Lobster Bisque, She-Crab Soup, and even Broccoli Cheddar then chowders?  Others say potatoes, onions, and some form of pork are the minimal requirements.  What about countless vegetable soups that meet those criteria?  Are they too chowders?  Just have to be seafood focused? Then are Maryland Crab Soup, Cioppino, and Gumbo all not chowders?  What about non-domestic seafood soups that are often coconut milk based like Creole Caribbean Rondón, Guatemalan Tapado, and Thai Tom Yum Goong?  Are they technically chowders?  Does true chili have beans or not? Is a hot dog a sandwich?  Why do I need I.D., to get I.D.?  If I had I.D. I wouldn't need I.D.  Hope there are a few Common fans out there.  Anyway, get the point?

Manhattan Clam Chowder in a Sourdough Bread Bowl at Chowders on Pier 39 in San Francisco
Even the etymology of chowder is hotly contested.  A History of Chowder by Robert S. Cox and Jacob Walker details how we really don't know whether the name chowder came from an old Cornish word, jowter, for fish peddler, or chaudiere, an old Northern French word for cauldron or stew pot.  It seems agreed that North America's versions originated from 1600's French or British seafaring folk, probably fishermen.  They would alternatingly layer salt pork, hardtack, and whatever seafood or vegetables were available in a pot, cover with water and simmer for hours.  This appears to be the original chowder.  Preserved pork, biscuits for thickening, and whatever edible items were around, boiled. Other variations took hold as Portuguese, Italian, Irish, and other immigrants started adding their twists in the 1800's.  

However, all this still doesn't answer: what is a chowder?  After a lot reading and research, debate and discussion, I could only come to one conclusion: fuck if I know.  Seriously.  It's one of those culinary concepts that takes so many forms it's difficult to define.  Nor do I really want to.  Chowder is much more to people beyond just a bowl of soup.  Case in point, my inclusion of the tomato-based Manhattan Clam Chowder as an actual chowder will draw ire from many a New Englander and label me as a heretic.  Few things stir up such intense feelings as food.  It's fiercely defining for someone's culture, ideology, and overall identity.  Whether it's paying homage to your heritage with a traditional holiday meal or making a statement by boycotting or excluding certain foods from your table, what and how we eat is a major part of who we are.  So no, I definitely do not want to challenge what chowder is to anyone, but rather celebrate what it has come to be for me and my family.  

Family recipes mean a lot to me.  Some like old jewelry, others scrapbooks or photo albums.  I like family cookbooks. There is some indescribable feeling that overtakes me while flipping through my mom's old ones, all peppered with hand-written tweaks and twists.  A generations' worth of culinary how-to at your fingertips, all tried-and-tested, gained from the humble purpose of feeding people.  It's even better reading recipes from family members who've passed.  Just seeing their writing makes me feel closer to them, let alone making the dishes they spent years perfecting.  Biting into my Mom-Mom's banana chocolate cake instantly takes me back to my early birthdays, sitting on her lap, and blowing out the candles.

Top - My Aunt Pauline's Manhattan Clam Chowder Recipe
Bottom - My Grandma's Deviled Crabs Recipe
It also makes me want to thank the American education system for doing away with cursive in classrooms, cause for god's sake that shit is barely legible.  

I think family recipes are slowly disappearing, or at least our appreciation of them.  It could be that tv-streaming tablets are replacing connections to family dinners, or the emergence of meal prep and delivery services like Sun Basket and Hello Fresh.  Even worse, Caviar, Uber Eats, and Postmates.  Dont' get me wrong, I'm not an anti-iPad luddite or don't enjoy the convenience of app-ordered Chinese food.  Trust me, I've had the demoralizing experience more than once of looking the DoorDash guy in the eye as he hands over McDonald's breakfast to my hungover ass.  People do seem to be more and more interested in their food, where it's from, how it's sourced, and so on, and I don't want to take that away from anyone or deny it.  But I don't hear much appreciation for the tupperware generation and the mayonnaise-based salads or cream of mushroom casseroles that helped get us here.

50 Count Topneck Chowder Clams
So, making Manhattan Clam Chowder with my Aunt was a true chance to experience the full joy and appreciation of family recipes.  Start to finish, it encompassed every detail I could have hoped.  Sitting there, prepping, tasting, listening to stories.  Flipping through my Aunt's old cookbooks and seeing all the tomato sauce or red wine stains, wondering how and when they got there.  Shucking clams and sauteeing onions, learning how my Aunt had to plead just to stand behind her mother, Big Aunt Pauline, and write down every detail of the chowdering process to memorialize the receipe. Getting educated on the right amount of bacon fat to keep in the pot while laughing about old family Scrabble battles. I heard how my then underage mom would drive carafes of Manhattan cocktails, at the behest of Big Aunt Pauline, to the local fishmonger in exchange for shucked clams.  And I now know my long passed grandfather's nickname for the chowder, "Callahann's Crowded Soup," as it has basically everything but the "kitchen sink" in it.  You can't get that from the Food Network or Blue Apron.

Manhattan Clam Chowder Prep
   It was just as good to share the end product of all our "hard work" at a nice, tv-free, family dinner.  Warm bites of briny and savory goodness eliciting everyone's nostalgic memories of past trips to the Jersey Shore. Most importantly, witnessing my nieces and nephew's first taste of Manhattan Clam Chowder.  I hope they too will appreciate and carry on our culinary traditions for generations to come.  For me, nothing evokes more emotion than food, my family's recipes, the stories behind them, and the chance to pass them along.  That, and of course fighting with my brother over who gets to eat the last helping.

Me and My Aunt Pauline with the Manhattan Clam Chowder

The SF Oyster Nerd


Oyster Chicharrones

I've always felt seafood doesn't get its due place on the American dinner table.  Think about your weekly dinner regiment.  Not to be presumptuous, but I imagine most are composed of something like chicken and rice, a hearty soup, taco Tuesday, some sort of pasta, an entree salad (cause we all want to feel healthy), pizza (to counteract that healthy salad), and maybe, if feeling bold, a piece of salmon.  Seeing how healthy and delicious seafood is, it's a shame it doesn't make it to our home dinner plates more often.  It's also a shame that when it occasionally does, it's usually just shrimp or salmon.  Reading Paul Greenberg's American Catch and Four Fish really makes you realize what an amazing abundance and diversity of seafood is off American shores.  Then, sadly, we limit ourselves to ecosystem-devastating farmed shrimp and unsustainably-caught and overfished tuna.  I know I'm teetering on the edge of sanctimony (I fuckin' love shrimp, love it!), but for the health of our oceans and the health of ourselves, our dietary choices really need to start supporting more sustainable aquaculture products like clams and mussels and responsible fisheries like sardines and ling cod.  Check out Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch for some guidance.  They have a wallet size guide you can always carry with you.

But back to the point of why seafood doesn't show up on our plates more often.  There are tons reasons for sure from availability to personal taste, but three main ones that I most often see.  First, and the most obvious, is that it's damn expensive.  Standing at the butcher and fishmonger at your local market, it's pretty easy to opt for the $2.99 a pound bone-in chicken thighs over the $34.99 a pound dungeness crab meat.  Sure, seafood is often seen as a luxury item only bought and cooked for special occasions.  However, when considering the season and the items, it can be pretty easy to make seafood an economical staple in your diet.  Things like mussels, clams, and squid rarely exceed $5.99.  Rockfish is usually available year-round at $9.99 a pound as is farmed rainbow trout.  Fish like salmon and halibut fluctuate in price throughout their seasons, so keep a sharp eye out for a drop in price.  Or, even better, befriend your local fishmongers.  Trust me, if they like you, they'll always "hook" you up.  Hackneyed puns are the best.

Second, and by no means do I intend to insult, but most people are intimidated by cooking seafood at home.  Maybe intimidated is a bit strong, but certainly unfamiliar.  Fact of the matter is that most of us grow up on pot roast, burgers, and spaghetti.  Seafood was something you ate when you went out to dinner.  So, as an adult, these are the familiar items you know and cook or can easily call your mom for the recipes.  A lot of people also really fear spoiled seafood.  For some reason stories of having a bad oyster are much more popular than bad chicken.  Therefore, we often avoid seafood because of the looming fear of it being off.  However, proportionally, contaminated salad greens and poultry make far more people sick than seafood.  Nowadays though, both of these issues are easily overcome.  As previously mentioned, I can't stress enough how valuable it is to become friends with your local fishmongers.  Chat with them, get to know them, hell even tip them or bring them beer as a holiday present.  They will not only guide you to the freshest items available that day, but can also provide a number of fun ways to prepare them.  If you don't have this luxury, farmers' markets will often have a quality seafood vendor that's worth the trip or, admittedly not economical, there are a number of online services that will ship fresh seafood to you.  Several oyster farms like Hog Island and Island Creek will Fedex oysters directly to your doorstep less than 24 hours out of the water.  And when it comes to preparation, come on, we've all got Google.  Be adventurous.

Lastly, and much in the same vein as my last point, seafood is simply foreign to many people.  Not only in cooking as previously discussed, but in flavor and style.  Outside of a few classics like chowder or lobster rolls, when you see most seafood preparations in the States, they are either one of two things: asian or fried.  This is certainly not a bad thing and is definitely changing with time.  Omakase nigiri is my absolute jam as is chili-garlic crab.  My last blog post was even about deep fried oysters.  Unfortunately, this limits our consumption of seafood as nobody wants to only eat fried food or asian-fusion every single night for dinner (if you do...don't stop...stay beautiful).  In every single seafood restaurant I've worked the chefs were always hyperconscious about not having too many fried items or asian-influenced items on the menu.  They all pushed for creative and new presentations.  I love the idea of "Americanizing" seafood.  No, not putting it through extreme-vetting or delusionally "making it great again."  Rather taking some typical and traditional American cuisines and making them with seafood.  Smoked trout hot dogs, octopus pepperoni, catfish chili, black cod bratwurst, salmon pastrami, buffalo oysters, smoked sturgeon club sandwiches.  Chef Doug Bernstein at Fish Restaurant in Sausalito is someone who I admire greatly and is creating a lot of these exact types of dishes.  So, I decided to try my hand at one of his very own:  Oyster Chicharrones (or Oyster Pork Rinds)

The concept is basically making shrimp chips, but with oysters. Shrimp chips, or Krupuk, are of Indonesian origin and an extremely popular snack throughout Southeast Asia.  If you've never had them, I highly recommend trying them.  They can be found in pretty much any Asian grocers and often in the ethnic foods isle at Safeway or Giant.  I am also aware chicharrones are a Latino and not an "American classic," but living in San Francisco, believe me, they have been completely adopted and identified as local cuisine.  See what great things welcoming diversity into our country can bring?  #notmypresident

The process is pretty simple in labor, though takes a few days of waiting.  In a food processor, blend the oysters into a paste with seasonings to taste.  In this instance, I used Pico de Mariscos (a Mexican Old Bay-esque seasoning) and some guallijo chiles.  Mix the paste with an equal part in weight of tapioca starch.  This will come to the consistency of a kneadable dough.  Knead a few more times on a floured cutting board and form into the shape of a one 2-3 inch wide log (or however large you'd like your chips to be).  Then steam the log for 45 minutes to an hour and place immediately in the fridge to rest overnight.  The next day, slice the log into thin chips.  Dry these chips out on a baking rack on a cookie sheet over night. 

From this point, the chips last in a zip-lock bag in the fridge for ages, ready to fry-to-order.  Of course, I couldn't wait any longer.  350 degree canola oil and in went the chips, just a few at time.  You know right when they are finished as they puff up just like a chicharron and float to the top.  It's hard to describe how cool it looks, so here is a link to a video demonstrating.  I wish I had taken a video, but I was solo and safety first.  Plus I didn't want accidentally deep fry my phone (libations were had).  However, I can share an image of the end product, which was amazing.

They were crunchy but fluffy and mild but with a oystery ocean brine pop.  Just like I'd hoped, an oyster chicharron.  I threw a little hot sauce on, more Pico de Mariscos seasoning, and served with fresh lime.  I then proceeded to sit down with a 22oz Tecate, the Giants game, and the entire bowl to myself.  Believe me, they did not last long.  I wish I had shared them with someone, but a big part of me is glad that I did not.  I really look forward to trying my hand at some other seafood dishes like this and I hope you may now too.

The SF Oyster Nerd


Deep Fried Oysters

I got a deep fryer for Christmas this past year.  It's not exactly a clean operation, but it's certainly easier than pouring a 1/2 gallon of canola oil in your dutch oven, turning the burner to medium-high, and hoping for the perfect, southern style fried chicken.  I've wasted plenty of time flicking AP flour into hot oil and thinking "sure, that seems about right."  The tempature is always accurate, there's an easy-to-use fry basket (no diving into scalding oil with a slotted spoon), and it's a self-contained, splatter-free operation.  Don't worry, it's not easy or clean enough to make fish'n'chips a daily staple in your diet.  All you cardiologists out there can rest easy. 

I have, however, been frying all sorts of fun stuff.  Cornish game hens, sand dabs, mezcal tapatio hot wings, mixed tempura, Milky Ways, Indiana style pork loin sandwiches.  There's an endless amount of things that could always be made better with a crispy, golden crust.  I'll be honest, though, spilling the meager $8.95 for Yen's Kitchen's General Tso's chicken is certainly more time and effort efficient than prepping, dredging, frying, and worse, cleaning up after making it at home for yourself.  Leaving it to the pros is often more reasonable, but there is something rewarding about making your own "take out" food at home, from time to time. 

Naturally, fried oysters eventually came to mind.  Simple enough approach, no?  Cornmeal dredge mixed with an Emeril's Essense of sorts and served alongside a remoulade or flavored aioli, right?  Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of the classic fried oyster.  The Walrus and The Carpenter's are hands down in my top five of cooked, or "quality added," oysters.  But hey, why not have a little fun and explore the possibility of oysters fried in different ways.  As I near 30 years of age I find myself in very different circumstances on a warm Saturday evening than I had less than a decade ago.  Eight years past it was tequila shots, Natty Light, beer pong, and power hour Kanye mix tapes.  Now, it's canola oil, buttermilk, AP flour, and a macro lens.  Oh, and Tecate, the West Coast version of Natty Light.  Never forget where you came from.

So, with three dozen wrist-breaking Hog Island Sweetwater mediums shucked and ready to go, let the frying begin. 

Be wary of the self-proclaimed oyster 'ficianado who says "I only like the small ones"

Potato Starch Fried Oysters (Kaki Karage)

Chicken karage is a dish of fairly high repute these days.  Savory, flavor-filled chicken thighs soaked in a soy mirin marinade, dredged in potato starch and deep fried.  The dredge is the key.  Potato starch is a curious thing in the canola crisped world.  It only requires a light dusting and straight in to the oil.  It has a certain stickiness to it, requiring a chopstick separation of individual pieces once dropped, but beyond that it is all one can hope for in a fried product.  It's a clean, club-handless prep, absorbs very little oil, and stays crispy for days.  If you've ever wondered why that Korean or Japanese fried chicken you love is so good, potato starch is often the answer.

As a huge fan of potato starch frying, oysters karage was one of the first things to come to mind.  I actually had made them before for my buddy's Vice Munchies video on the life of an oyster shucker.  Best to start out with a tried and true winner.

They turned out great.  Served alongside a spicy, bright yuzukosho aioli and garnished with quick fried keffir lime leaves and scallions, the oysters karage were as tasty as we remembered.  I over coated a few, which led to a crispy outside but a little potato starch stickiness remained under the crust.  A lesson well learned.  Always dredge lightly when doing karage. The crispy keffir lime leaves were a nice find, though.  Seriously, they taste exactly like Froot Loops when fried.  Unfortunately, I couldn't come up with a clever spin on the "follow your nose" slogan.  Ideas?

 Chicken-Fried Oysters

Put "chicken-fried" next to anything on a menu and it's going to sell.  Yet there are so many different and well respected approaches to the arguably national dish.  Without running the thesis deserving gamut that defines chicken-fried, I'll give you my understanding of the traditional.  

1) Marinate product in seasoned buttermilk for an extended period of time.
2) Strain product and dredge in seasoned AP flour.
3) Dip product in a mix of egg and buttermilk.
4) Dredge product, once more, in seasoned AP flour.
5) Fry

That's the exact process we did.  Three hours or so in seasoned buttermilk, the three tier dredge process, and right into rippin' hot oil.

They ended up with a pleasantly crunchy, craggily exterior and a fluffy interior that lead into the briny oyster.  They did "die" quickly, though, as several fried foods do, and lost that desired crunch.  I think the high moisture content of oysters softens the breading quickly.  Be sure to serve them immediately out of the fryer.  Topped with chives and served alongside a maple bourbon cayenne sauce, they could easily be an excuse to get out of Sunday morning church.  "Sorry, mom.  I really want to go but I have to prep the chicken-fried oysters everyone loves to have for brunch."  Oh, and topped with bacon bits, which obviously makes everything better.

Buffalo Oysters

I always get really excited when I see something "buffalo" flavored.  Spicy Buffalo Wheat Thins, Blazin' Buffalo & Ranch Doritos, Frank's Red Hot Buffalo sunflower seeds.  A big part of me really wants these products to be good and hopes they are, as the buffalo wing flavor is so incredible.  Every time I see a new one, I have to buy it.  However, they always end up tasting awful.  And yet, like a vicious buffalo seasoned Groundhog Day, I keep buying them, optimistically thinking "this one just might be good."  I now know why people call "hope" a four letter word.

I find the same to be true of buffalo style seafood.  Shrimp and oysters seem to be the most common.  Often simply breaded and tossed in buffalo sauce, they both come out okay, but never smack me as amazing.  To figure out a solution to this problem, I think we need to go back to what makes the actual hot wing so good in the first place.

What's everyone's favorite part of the bird?  Let's be honest, your most base instincts never say "go straight for the white breast meat" while the Thanksgiving turkey is being carved.  That skin that falls right off, however, is awfully convenient, and, in your heart of hearts, the most delicious bite of the whole meal.  It's true of all poultry.  From the decadent peking duck to the humble buffalo wing, rich crispy skin is the common denominator of deliciousness.

So, why not bring chicken skin and oyster together?

Hog Island Sweetwaters wrapped in chicken thigh skin
This was by far the craziest and most ambitious of fries.  Would the skin stay on?  Will the oyster over cook before the skin gets crispy?  Will the "franken-oysters" even taste good?  

I also decided to make my own ranch to go with them, seeing as I already had buttermilk and several different herbs for garnish.  All ranch really is is thickened buttermilk with seasoning and herbs.  I figured, why not throw it all in a mason jar and shake the shit out of it, just like homemade butter is made from cream?  Maybe throw an egg and oil in to help?  How hipsterly cool would it be to say "Hey, guys, I made my own ranch dressing.  Did it all by hand in a mason jar.  No big deal.  Also, do you know any typewriters that have Helvetica? I want to write a blog about writing a blog on a typewriter.  So meta."

But yea, turns out that doesn't work.  I was an idiot for thinking buttermilk would thicken.  It is, after all, the left over product from when the butter has already separated from the cream.  Hence, buttermilk.  Oh, and oil and egg yolks don't emulsify into mayo when shaken in a mason jar, either.  Duly noted.  I did end up busting out the Cuisinart to make mayo, added buttermilk, herbs, and seasoning: it was homemade ranch, but was certainly no Hidden Valley. 

With oysters wrapped, ranch made, and a butter, vinegar, Frank's Red Hot sauce simmering in a bowl, it was go time.

Surprisingly, the oysters and skin stayed together in the fryer.  No toothpick needed, they just stuck to one another.  After about 4 minutes, the skin crisped up and into the bowl they went for coating.

Were they good?  The most memorable quote of the night by far was after the first bite:  "Anthony...I've gone too far..."  Understandably, it was just me and my buddy, and we had already downed several beers and had a dozen fried oysters each.  And chicken thigh skin is significantly fattier than chicken drumette skin.  Though it appeared to be crisped up, the skin still held a world of rich poultry fat waiting to burst on the first bite.  I can say the first one was delicious, but anymore than that and you could feel the butter, ranch, and chicken skin slowing your heart.

At the end of the day, any excuse to break out both my shucker and deep fryer is a good time.  Not all my fried oyster ideas came out perfectly, but they were certainly fun to make and insightful into the abounding possibilities of deep fried shellfish.  Though I do claim to be an oyster purist, I think Julie Andrews should have thrown "fried oysters" between "raindrops on roses" and "warm woolen mittens," cause they're certainly one of my favorite things. 

The SF Oyster Nerd


Low Country Oyster Trip

Southeastern U.S. oysters don't get much love.  I've even heard people speak of Gulf oysters with an air of disdain.  Rarely do they enter the conversation when people are talking about their favorite oysters, in my experience.  In modern oyster culture, Massachusetts, Washington, both Canadian coasts, and Kumamotos from anywhere are what most raw bars across the country are talking about.  "The colder the waters, the better the oysters" is a phrase haphazardly thrown around these days.  "I only like the small ones" is another disappointing expression frequently heard.  And, unfortunately, the coastal Carolinas and Georgia don't have or produce either.  It's a shame, because the Low Country has a lot more to offer in terms of seafood than just shrimp'n'grits.

Green gilled Topsail Sound from North Carolina.
The green color comes from the type of algae it feeds on. 
The oyster culture in these parts is different, though.  First, it's one of the last areas in the country where the vast majority of oysters are wild harvested.  Farming oysters and aquaculture, in general, is something relatively new and practiced by a few visionaries.  It's unfortunate as the area is full of high salinity, nutrient rich, marshy waters.  I see it coming soon, though, but more on that later.  Most oysters are currently raked as clusters from wild reefs or grown in clusters and sold in 100-count bushels for $40 retail, a notable difference from the $1 a piece Kusshis or Kumamotos at wholesale.  Oysters are very abundant and available when in season.  Shit, in Charleston they even line the streets and make chandeliers out of them.

Oyster chandeliers at Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar
This means that oysters aren't really marketed by farm or appellation but as locally harvested oysters.  It is certainly something that has existed and is becoming more and more popular as you see Stump Sounds, Coosaw Cups, or Caper's Blades on menus.  And, there is definitely a familiarity and appreciation of subtle differences in oysters, I just wouldn't say it's nearly as common or popular as it is in the northern states.  Traditionally, oysters are oysters and eaten raw on crackers with hot sauce, steamed and dipped in butter, and roasted or barbecued in various styles.  They're not particularly parsed apart for their illusive raw flavor differences varying by where they are grown. 

I found this quite refreshing compared to the almost oyster-snobbery that I've become accustomed to in the Bay Area.  I wouldn't be comfortable calling it snobbery if I weren't one of those snobs.  But my experience in the Low Country eating oysters really made me appreciate quality added oysters.  I'm slowly starting to accept the fact that oysters don't have to be "raw or bust."  "No lemon, no sauce, and especially, no cooking" used to be my mantra, but I'm slowly coming around.  And the Low Country certainly solidified that.

My first introduction to the Southeast style was with my very gracious host, Kim, of Harbor Island Oyster Company, who gave me a Wilmington, NC oyster tour for the day.  She spoke of steamed oysters, something which I had never really considered.  In my experience, oysters are not like clams and mussels when you cook them.  By the time they pop open, they are dramatically over cooked.  But, Kim proved I had been mistaken at Hieronymus Restaurant

Hieronymus is an old school seafood house serving up your classic crab cakes, shrimp'n'grits, and daily fish specials that come fried, blackened, or pan roasted in a sauce of your choosing.  It feels like the kind of place my grandma always wanted to go for the clam strips or where a bunch of old salty dogs would be at the bar chain-smoking and pounding Miller Lites.  The kind of place I grew up going to and first discovered my love of seafood.  The steamed oysters were pretty bad ass too.  Not many establishments provide customers with a knife to drive directly at their hands through brittle, steamed oyster shell, and it certainly added to the charm.  Personally popping open these delicious little brine bombs was a pleasure.  And the steaming enhanced the brininess, just as Kim had said.  Tough to beat a dozen of those, drawn garlic butter, and an ice cold bitter ale.  

Husk in Charleston was next on the list. Chef Sean Brock is a local culinary legend and gaining lots of international praise too.  He, and others, have helped to farm and reestablish the use of Low Country heirloom produce like Sea Island Red Peas and Jimmy Red Corn and to bring back "antebellum cuisine."  Husk even has a farm in McClellanville dedicated to promoting local produce and educating future generations of sustainable agriculture's benefits.  You know Brock luv da' kids.

And nothing screams coastal antebellum cuisine quite like local oysters.  Wood oven roasted Caper's Blades oysters with herbed chicken fat and aji pepper mash.  Yea.  Don't think I need to say much more than that.  The presentation was great, too.  The oysters were shucked, roasted with seasonings, and had the top shell placed back on for serving.  Each one was like opening an aromatic culinary-Christmas present.  Sorry, but no pictures.  Fancy dining with the parents and I didn't want to embarrass anyone, at least before we'd finished off the first bottle of wine.  Your kindergarten teacher would be so proud of you for using your imagination.

Final culinary stop: The Ordinary in Charleston.  Honestly, this place blew me away unlike any dining experience I've had in a long time.  The space is an old, converted bank.  All marble, two story ceilings, and the kitchen is even visible through the bank's original vault door.  The bar has an impressive selection of cocktails based on Caribbean rums, paying homage to Charleston's history as a colonial Triangle Trade post and a Prohibition era rum-runners' hub.

But what topped all else was the restaurant's focus and execution of creative shellfish preparations.  Pangea Pearl Oysters with chives, caviar and crème fraîche.  Low Country style barbecued prawns, the sauce being more of a brown roux type gravy rather than traditional BBQ sauce.  Crispy oysters with beef tartare.  Maine lobster minute ceviche.  Cumin and coriander pickled white shrimp.  The only thing I regret was not trying everything.  However, far and above the rest, were the smoked oysters. 

Humbly and simply presented, they were probably the best bite of my entire East Coast road trip from Philadelphia to Savannah.  They barely smoke the oysters, only 15 minutes or so at 150 degrees.  This imparts a mild smokey flavor while keeping the oyster pretty much raw.  The oysters are then placed in a mason jar with lemon juice, olive oil, parsley, and a few other seasonings.  Served with old bay buttered saltines, crème fraîche, and house hot sauce, they were awesome, as in actually deserving of reverence.  A trip to Charleston for these alone is justified, seriously. 

Lastly, I visited the UNCW Shellfish Research Hatchery on my trip there.  It was a really interesting and informative experience to see the very start of farmed oysters.  Ami Wilbur is heading the project to breed local, disease resistant virginicas to supply to Carolina watermen.  It's relatively new and she is only supplying four farmers with seed, but it's still in its beginnings.  They take broodstock (basically oysters studs and mares), spawn it, collect and set the spat (oyster larvae), and raise the oysters with "house-made" algae.  After they reach appropriate seed size, they are passed on to the farmers or grown out in the sound off Masonboro Island by the hatchery.  

Broodstock being analyzed for selected spawning

Algae growing tanks at the hatchery

Hopefully, a few years down the road, not only will more people be growing sustainable oysters in the area but we may all be able to enjoy full flavored and well cultivated Carolina appellations, as long as all those amazing steamed and smoked oysters don't stop coming, of course.  I highly recommend taking a trip to Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, or anywhere in between and checking out the amazing seafood and oyster culture yourself.  There's plenty more to be had than just vinegar based BBQ in these parts.

The SF Oysternerd