The surprising complexity of a classic Chinese condiment

Of all the intriguing condiments in Chinese cuisine, there’s one whose nickname probably raises more questions than it answers: it’s oyster sauce. How, you might lazily wonder, can something as pale and salty as the rarely cooked oyster produce something so deeply brown and velvety?

Even if you’ve never used it yourself, you’ve almost certainly eaten oyster sauce many times, in a wide variety of familiar Chinese dishes. The comforting flavor of beef with broccoli owes a lot to this shiny brown sauce, just like chow mein. The oyster sauce is salty and sweet, with a kiss of ginger and a strong umami punch. It has a long history, paralleling that of other delicious gooey brown sauces around the world.

Oyster sauce gets its color from a source known to anyone who browns bacon or onions: the Maillard reaction, in which heat causes proteins and sugars to react together, making the color even more delicious. The sauce is made from liquid oysters that have been poached, boiled until caramelized and dark, then spiked with soy sauce and spices. It is not, like fish sauce or Worcestershire sauce, usually a product of fermentation. In a charming video, a couple from Shenzhen, China demonstrate the traditional method with many hours of simmering in a wok (a bottle of beer pops halfway through – the perfect accompaniment to some fish hijinks) .

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Interestingly, although it’s probably been made for ages, oyster sauce as a marketable concept isn’t very old. It was in 1888 that the founder of the most important brand of oyster sauce, Lee Kum Kee, began packaging and selling what company legend describes as an over-boiled oyster soup turned into a salty paste. and tasty. Since its founding in Zhuhai, China, the company has grown into a global condiment giant. It’s not the only sauce on the market, but it’s everywhere, and chances are if you’ve had oyster sauce, you’ve had Lee Kum Kee.

Sharon D. Cole