Before Nixon went to China, my favorite oyster sauce didn't exist.
Well, there was oyster sauce, but not Panda Brand, which was created by the Lee Kum Kee company in 1972.
We think of China as an ancient culture, and of Chinese food as an ancient cuisine, but oyster sauce is a "new" condiment, invented in the 1880s by a happy accident. According to the Lee Kum Kee web site, Lee Kum Sheung, a farmer from Guangdong Province who had opened a tiny eatery, was boiling oysters one day and let them cook too long. He noticed that the normally clear oyster liquid had turned into a thick, brownish sauce which had a wonderful aroma and taste. This sauce became so popular that, in 1888, he formed the Lee Kum Kee company to mass produce his oyster sauce.
After Nixon's visit in 1972, the company, capitalizing on the popularity of the panda as a symbol of friendship between the US and China, created Panda Brand oyster sauce, a lower-priced version of their premium sauce, specifically for export to overseas Chinese communities.
Asian cooking is all about the condiments: authentic condiments, authentic taste; imitation condiments, not much taste.
Oyster sauce (ho yau in Cantonese, and in most cases really an oyster-flavored sauce) is a thick, salty, but not fishy-tasting sauce made from boiled oysters and seasonings. True oyster sauces are oyster extracts, without anything added, but most versions contain cornstarch, caramel, and other flavorings that yield a rich dark brown sauce. (Note: Many brands, including Panda and other lower-priced brands, do contain MSG. I'm often sensitive to MSG, but the minute amount here doesn't seem to bother me.) Once opened, oyster sauce should be stored in the refrigerator, and will keep for a year.
I've never tried all-natural oyster sauce, nor have I tried making my own kosher-vegetarian version, though it's nice to know how to do it. From the first time I tasted Lee Kum Kee sauces (both Panda Brand and premium), I recognized the taste as what I'd become accustomed to in Chinese restaurants, and I've stuck with that through many years of Chinese cooking.
The salty quality of oyster sauce lends its mysterious richness to beef stew, stir-fried beef or chicken, vegetables, or tofu. Mix it with light soy sauce and rice wine as a dip for dim sum like har gau or cheong fun, or even for vegetable tempura.
Oyster sauce holds a place of honor in my pantry, because it's the "2" in the 3-2-1 Cantonese and Szechuan Trinities, my basic Chinese stir-fry sauces.
Mee goreng (spicy fried noodles)
For two weeks while traveling in Malaysia, I ate this noodle dish every day, sometimes twice a day, trying to figure out the recipe (and because I love noodles!). No two street vendors make it the same way. I got a mee goreng lesson from a woman in a night market on the east coast, and back in Boston Alfred Chua, who used to own Merlion restaurant, helped me fine-tune the recipe. Serves 4-5 as part of a family-style meal, 2-3 as a main dish.
2 cups fresh Chinese egg noodles
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 cup mung bean sprouts
1/2 cup shredded cabbage
1/4 lb shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/4 lb boneless chicken breast, cubed (or leftover cooked chicken)
1 tsp minced garlic
2 Tbsp chili sauce (Sriracha), or more to taste
1 tsp dark soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
3 Tbsp oyster sauce
3 Tbsp ketchup
2 Tbsp shao hsing wine, or more to taste
1/4 tsp white pepper
2 Tbsp scallions, sliced
2 Tbsp fried shallots (available packaged at Asian markets)
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook the noodles for 30 seconds, drain, and rinse with cold water. Set aside. In a large preheated wok, add the vegetable oil. Crack the eggs into the wok, stir vigorously until the eggs are just set, then add the garlic, noodles, bean sprouts, cabbage, shrimp, chicken, and 3/4 cup water. Stir-fry continuously until noodles are cooked, 3-5 minutes (depending on the heat of your wok). Add chili sauce, dark soy, sugar, salt, oyster sauce and ketchup, and continue stirring. The noodles should begin to get a bit drier. Add shao hsing wine and white pepper, stir to combine, and remove from heat. Garnish with scallions and fried shallots.
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