Oyster sauce—it’s the gooey, brown, pleasantly fishy, super salty, umami bomb we all know and love. But what is Oyster sauce actually? Is it made of oysters? Super concentrated fish stock? A clownfish and a royal blue tang that got lost in the sauce (er, so to speak)?
Well enough talking about this deep, caramelized, fishy delight—let’s dive in!
So what is Oyster sauce made of?
Turns out the origin story of oyster sauce is something of a “happy accident,” as my buddy Bob Ross would say. Also, oyster sauce is a surprisingly recent invention given its complexity of flavor and the simplicity of ingredients. So how does one accidentally create brown fish sauce paste? With a brown fish stock, of course! Apparently, back in 1888, a guy named Lee Kum Sheung was running a food stall in what is now China’s Guangdong province. Lee set a giant pot of oyster soup on the stove just like he did every other day, and left it there simmering to keep it warm for the restaurant customers. No one knows what distracted him from his oyster soup for so long that day, but apparently, he came back several hours later to find that the soup was still simmering on the stove but had been reduced down into a thick brown paste. He tried the paste and noted its “deeply savory and umami flavors, with a caramelized quality that provided balance.” It was so good that he later started the company Lee Kum Kee (ring a bell?) to sell his sauce. Lee Kum Kee oyster sauce still contains real oyster to this day. He’s like the Chef Pii of the 19th century!
As I see it, we can learn three things from this story: 1.) Oyster sauce is, in fact, made of oysters; 2.) Lee Kum Kee made the first ever oyster sauce (and oyster sauce made Lee Kum Kee); and 3.) Continuously check on your soups, y’all…or don’t, you just might invent the next ketchup or something.
Okay, Okay, we know what it is now, but what does oyster sauce taste like?
Oyster sauce (or oh-yes-ter sauce, if you’re cool) tastes, in a word, great. It’s deep, rich, caramelized, umami, extremely salty, slightly sweet, and has just a hint of fishiness. A whiff of this stuff won’t knock your socks off the way straight-up fish sauce does, but definitely use it sparingly. Let me tell ya, it packs an umami punch! You can use it in your stir fries, on your noodles, to add umami to your meatballs—you name it, oyster sauce has you covered. So give it a try! Say “oh-yes-ter!” to the oh-yes-ter sauce, and let me know how you like it! Also, make sure to get the Sporked-approved premium Lee Kum Kee one, not the one with the panda on it—the flavor is better.