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).
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.
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
|Dried oysters in San |
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|
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