Oyster sauce (Recipe: mee goreng)
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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I'm also sensitive to MSG, so I tend to not buy any Chinese condiments. But, since you say that this sauce's MSG level didn't affect you, I'll have to try it. I don't believe I've ever had oyster sauce but it sounds tasty.
My favorite dish that my dad use to make was the strip steak with oyster sauce. He half cooks the steak and then throw it back in with some oyster sauce and scallions. After that he scoops the beef out and throws in some noodles with more oyster sauce and let it soak up the remaining beef juices. Talk about tasty!
I like the way your fried noodles sound...garlic and fried shallots...I'm there!
Hi again Lydia,
You paid only $1.55 for that?! I have to fork out more than 4 euros for a bottle of the same size (500ml)... thanks for the history of oyster sauce! Despite using it often in my cooking, I've always assumed no oysters were ever part of the story.. :) now I know!
I have so much to learn about food, Lydia...
I don't know anything about Chinese food!
The way you describe it makes it really interesting.
I have a recipe with beef and broccoli that calls for oyster sauce, I should try it sometime!
Finally, something edible to thank Nixon for! Wasn't he the president who like cottage cheese with ketchup, or am I thinking or someone else?
BTW, I have had problems accessing certain blogs tonight, and this was one of them.
Lisa, there are some MSG-free brands out there, though I like the taste of Panda Brand and am willing to put up with the occasional MSG "flush". I really haven't had a problem with this, but it could be as much a function of the recipes I make than of the oyster sauce itself.
Veron, your father's recipe sounds absolutely perfect. Beef, oyster sauce, and noodles -- to me that is heaven.
Shilpa, this is the going price in my local Chinese supermarket!
Patricia, beef and broccoli with oyster sauce is a classic recipe. I hope you try it!
Mimi, I remember that Reagan had ketchup issues. Nixon, too? I give him points for going to China...but not much else.
(PS -- I think Typepad has been having issues for the past couple of days, as this blog and others have experienced sporadic problems. If you're trying to leave a comment, please keep trying. Thanks.)
Really interesting info. I enjoyed your recipe development story. When I've traveled, I've sometimes tried ordering the same thing over and over because it's always interesting to see how different the same thing can be.
Lydia, that fried noodle dish sounds like heaven. I used to get pretty good noodles from the Chinese street vendors in Pittsburgh's Strip District (which, despite the name, is the city's wholesale food district).
I particularly like oyster or fish sauce combined with raw cabbage, for some reason - a dash of it usually goes into slaws at my house.
i use this stuff like crazy and my boyfriend always goes nuts on me because he can't stand the aroma. i still want to try this recipe -- he'll get over it!
Oyster sauce is essential. I found a brand called Wok Mei at Whole Foods - all pure and natural, no msg or preservatives.
Tanna, I don't think there's a better way to learn a recipe than by tasting over and over. And each time I tasted these noodles, there was something different about them, so I think my ultimate recipe combines the best of each variation.
Scott, I'm addicted to the salty-gooey quality of oyster sauce. I love the idea of adding it into slaw -- will definitely try that. The first time I put it in beef stew, my husband thought I was nuts, but it's really delicious.
Linda, I don't even notice the aroma...and compared to fish sauce, it's nothing at all! Maybe that's the secret -- make him smell fish sauce first, and then he won't mind the oyster sauce!
Karen, thanks for the recommendation. I will look for this at Whole Foods.
ohhhhyes oyster sauce is so yummy. mmmmm. iu love the sweetness so much with noodles. brrr its cold on ri now huh?
Aria, welcome to The Perfect Pantry, and greetings from very cold RI! Love your blog -- stunning photos and great style.
Yes, Reagan thought ketchup was a vegetable.
I don't think Niixon was much into food, period.
Always wondered what the relationship of oysters to oyster sauce was. Thaks for the info.
Oh yes, it was Nixon who's favorite sandwich was cottage cheese and ketchup. It's my dirty little secret favorite as well, especially on two lovely pieces of toast! YUM! don't knock it 'til you've tried it.
Anyway, I digress... I had no idea oyster sauce was made of oysters. I always assumed it was much like duck sauce and not actually made of duck/oyster. Thanks Lydia!
Mimi, see Ann's comment below.
Christine, I think a lot of people are afraid of using oyster sauce because they think it will smell like oysters. It doesn't at all, at least not to me. And anyone who's eaten in a Chinese restaurant has been eating oyster sauce for years, maybe without knowing it.
Ann, one of my favorite "sandwiches" when I was younger was to take a piece of toast, coat it with cottage cheese, and throw it under the broiler until the cheese began to brown. I'm guessing a smear of ketchup between bread and cheese wouldn't be a bad thing at all.
And for those who might be wondering....duck sauce is NOT made out of ducks! It's made of plums, usually -- but that's a subject for a future post....
I always feel like I should get a gold star for having one of your featured products in my pantry *ding* gold star for Jeff today!
Lydia, very informative post, thanks foe sharing :)
Also, LKK brand oyster sauce has 3 varieties. Besides the "Panda" label, most chinese prefer the "premium" label, much richer in taste, more friendly-fragranted as opposed to the "Panda" labeled ones. For those who wants to get something light and vegetarian, LKK carries "Vegetarian" too.
Jeff, now I want to know what's in your pantry that's not in mine??? Please share! There's always room for more in my pantry, somehow, somewhere.....
MeltingWok, I didn't know that LKK has a vegetarian oyster sauce! I wonder, what's the key ingredient, if not oyster extract? Maybe mushrooms? I will look for this in my favorite Asian supermarket. Thank you, on behalf of the many vegetarian Pantry readers.
Your ingredients for the noodles are approximately the same as we use too, except that we omit the scallions & ketchup.
Your blog is interesting, I love your 'life-size' photos:)
ValentinA, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. The ketchup in this dish was a surprise to me when I was first taught the recipe. By the way, I love your blog, too!
Wok Mei's All Natural Oyster sauce has no MSG or refined sugars. I found it because it was certified Gluten Free. But what really surprised me is the deep oyster flavor. Wow. It also is lowere in salt. I've been hooked since finding it. Glad to see you mention this one.
Lee Kum Kee makes 2 lines of oyster flavored sauce - Panda Brand with MSG and another line with a yellow label (still says Lee Kum Kee) that doesn't contain MSG. I usually find the 2 types right next to each other on the Super88 shelf.
Dave, thanks for the heads-up about this product.
Smokey Bonez, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. A fellow 88 shopper, eh? I've seen the yellow-label LKK sauce but haven't tried it. Does it taste the same, or better?
hi, i tried my first oyster dish and it does add a lot of flavor. i used a different brand though, i found it in an Asian store - Mama Sita's Oyster sauce. their mushroom version is sooo good. i surfed about it and it turns out its from the Philippines. they have a nice website too www.msita.com
i enjoy my vegetables now! thanks!
Erica, this sauce is new to me -- I'll check it out! Thanks -- and glad you're having fun with oyster sauce.
its delicious.i like that.may its available all stores.
Having tried many, I love the All Natural Wok Mei Oyster Sauce best. The incredible, rich flavor, low salt and no MSG makes it my all-time favorite