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Oyster sauce (Recipe: chicken lo mein)


The walking route from our first apartment in Boston to my job at a publishing company in the Leather District took me right through Chinatown.

I didn't know how to cook, so the temptation was minimal.

Every day I walked past half a dozen markets, some with produce spilling into the street, others that sold only noodles, or barbecued duck suspended in the window. I never stopped at the bakery that made moon cakes and fortune cookies. I passed up the housewares and cookware.


Today it takes me hours to cover the same few blocks I used to speed through in minutes. And I come home lugging fresh and dried noodles, bamboo steamers, every imaginable variety of choy (greens) and chile peppers, and bottles of condiments, like my very favorite oyster sauce.


Asian cooking is all about condiments: authentic condiments, authentic taste; imitation condiments, not much taste. Oyster sauce (also called 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 -- the ones whose flavor we recognize from Chinese restaurant dishes -- contain cornstarch, caramel, and other flavorings that yield a rich, dark brown sauce.

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 accident. After Nixon's visit to China in 1972, the Lee Kum Kee 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.

Many brands, including Panda, do contain MSG. I'm often sensitive to MSG, but the tiny amount in this sauce doesn't seem to bother me.

Once opened, oyster sauce should be stored in the refrigerator, and will keep for a year or more.

Of course I use oyster sauce in stir fry dishes; it adds richness to beef or chicken, vegetables, or tofu. I always add a bit to salmon fried rice and to Ted's favorite beef stew, too, and I mix it with light soy sauce and rice wine as a dip for tempura or nime chow.

And it's the "2" in the 3-2-1 Cantonese and Szechuan Trinities, my basic all-purpose stir-fry sauces.

Chicken lo mein

One of my all-time favorite restaurant-style dishes, this recipe serves 6.


1 lb fresh Chinese egg noodles (or use dry spaghetti)
2 tsp peanut or canola oil
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into bite-size pieces
1 small onion, diced, or 4-5 scallions, chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled, sliced thin
4-oz can sliced mushrooms
1/2 cup Cantonese 3-2-1 sauce (3 parts reduced-sodium soy sauce, 2 parts oyster sauce, 1 part sesame oil), or more as needed
2 cups mung bean sprouts (optional), rinsed under cold water


Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil; cook egg noodles over high heat until they float to the surface, then reduce heat and cook for 2-3 minutes until al dente (or cook spaghetti according to package directions). Drain, but do not rinse, and reserve the cooking water.

In a large wok or frying pan, heat the oil. Add the chicken and stir fry for 1-2 minutes, until lightly brown all over. Add the onion, and stir for 1-2 minutes, until translucent. Add the garlic and mushrooms, and stir for 1 minute. Add the Cantonese 3-2-1, plus 1-2 tablespoons of the reserved cooking water, and stir for 1 minute until the meat is coated. Add the cooked noodles and bean sprouts, and stir thoroughly for 2-3 minutes, until the ingredients are combined and the sauce is absorbed into the noodles. If needed, add more soy sauce and oyster sauce, to taste.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Grilled tofu with soba noodles
Mee goreng
Pad Thai
Asparagus wonton wraps
Broccoli eggrolls
Farfalle with spinach and sausage

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Ironically I hate oysters (they make me gag) but I love oyster sauce. Mmm, your lo mein looks tasty.

glad to see oyster sauce being featured hehe, this is something familiar to me and most people who do Chinese cooking will have it. They are so versatile especially in stir frys!

Thanks for explaining oyster sauce--I've always wondered about it. Your informative posts have resulted in my adding many new ingredients to my own pantry as well as bringing new life to others that were seldom used.

Interesting! I never knew such interesting story existed with the humble oyster sauce!

I love those thick lo-mein noodles. And I love the simplicity of the 3-2-1 sauce. I'm always following a recipe and measuring. By the way, Super 88 carries a few brands that don't have MSG. (including coin tree). I don't know how they compare in taste, but I always buy those brands for that reason.

The photo of your Chicken Lo Mein looks wonderful - I wish I could have that for breakfast! I've always wondered if there really were oysters in oyster sauce - thanks for the real story!

I agree with TW, that photo of the LoMein looks so real I almost stuck my fork in it. Interesting info on oyster sauce, and great recipe.

i love surprise finds when wandering city streets! and chinatowns are FULL of surprises.

We love Chinese food, and this looks yummy. I'll definitely have to try it.

I love oyster sauce. I agree with TW too, this would taste great for breakfast (or lunch or dinner too!) I need to have a visit to the Asian markets here soon!

Yum! I love Lo Mein but have never tried making it at home. Looking forward to cooking with oyster sauce for the first time!

Love noodles and oyster sauce too! Instead of onions try green onions...they go very well with oyster sauce. this is how my dad prepared it back home....

We love Chinese food, so I'll definitely have to try this recipe. It looks yummy.

I love shopping in Boston's Chinatown. You can basically find any ingredient you could possibly need (and have never heard of) at fantastic prices. And the restaurants are fabulous as well!

This looks delicious! I'm Chinese and can't even make Chinese food this good!

If you can get your hands on the premium brand, do so! The premium brand is way more intensely flavored. Compare the ingredients list. The Panda brand is all right for everyday cooking but if you have a dish where you want that oyster sauce flavor to really stand out, use the premium.

Delicious. Oddly enough we had Lo Mein for dinner last night. Oyster sauce does add a depth to things, doesn't it?

I love noodles and oyster sauce. Try using green onions instead of regular onions. That's how my dad makes it's also pretty good!

I love oyster sauce, it's in my pantry and I dig the 3-2-1 rule...noted.

My MIL is from Hong Kong, and it doesn't seem to matter what she cooks - if I ask her what's in it, she always giggles and says "siyauh, tohng, fan!" (soy sauce, sugar, cornstarch). That has become our "trinity" in our house. Oyster sauce is added if you want a sauce that is more "luhng" (rich), or sesame oil, or both.

Yea for Chinese pantry staples!

I can't wait to try this recipe out, the last time I tried to make lo-mein at home it didn't taste all that great ! I also can't wait to try the broccoli egg rolls !

Thanks for the ideas !

Oh that photo makes me want to lick the screen! It's beautiful!

I love the backstory of this. I also think it great how you 'discovered' Chinatown after having 'missed it' for so long. Just think of all the amazing meals you missed out on!

That picture is amazing, I am craving this!I don't have to order take out now because I have your wonderful recipe!

Another popular brand is Lee Kum Kee

I love using oyster sauce, and your 3-2-1 is perfect and easy to remember.

Ooh...I couldn't live without my oyster sauce. I use the same brand - perfect flavor.

I'm getting ready for bed and these noodles have me salivating! I too love oyster sauce and find it entirely intriguing that gooey oysters are a part of this mix.

Simple and tasty, just the way I like it!

I'm salivating just reading your recipe, Lydia! I always have to have oyster sauce on hand. It's essential for a shrimp-wrapped-in-wonton-paper appy that I do.

Peabody, same here -- no oysters for me, but oyster sauce is a long-time favorite.

Noobcook, it was a Chinese cook who taught me how to use oyster sauce!

Kathy, that's how it starts, a few pantry ingredients here and there, and pretty soon you're building more shelves....

Anh, I never knew that oyster sauce was a "new" product, either.

Julia, thanks for the info -- I've never tried Coin Tree but it would be interesting to do a taste comparison. I'm convinced that the LKK is the oyster sauce that tastes most like my favorite restaurant dishes, but I'm always up for finding something better.

TW, I'm a 24-hour noodle eater, and when we traveled through Malaysia I had mee goreng noodles for breakfast every morning. And, yes, I've had cold lo mein noodles for breakfast at home, too.

Marcia, this is a real favorite of mine!

Tony, same here -- it's the best part of traveling, too.

Kalyn, I love eating this for breakfast! When I was young, I would always sneak into the fridge and eat cold spaghetti with meatballs if my mother had made it the night before.

Angela, Carol, Margaret, Noble Pig, Reeni: This is so easy to make -- it's all about having the condiments that make it taste the way you like it.

Sues, I definitely have my favorite places (markets and restaurants) in Boston's Chinatown. Now that I don't live nearby, I really make the most of every visit.

Nate, I occasionally do have the premium in my pantry, though I don't use it for everyday cooking. You're absolutely right -- the taste is very different, much more oyster, and less sweet.

Heather, did you make it yourself?

Veron, I usually do use green onions or scallions, but didn't have any on the day I took this photo. They do give a slightly sharper flavor, which I love.

Peter, Pam: Hope the 3-2-1 works for you!

Aunt LoLo, thank you so much for sharing your family's own "trinity" -- I use that one sometimes for marinating, too.

Marja, the eggrolls are terrific, and use lots of the same ingredients. Enjoy!

EB, the moral of the story is...don't forget to look at what's right in front of you! If I hadn't been in such a hurry to get home from work every day, I would have discovered the wonderful markets of Chinatown much sooner!

Christine, the Panda brand is actually Lee Kum Kee -- so we're on the same wave length!

Sweetbird, I'm completely devoted to this brand. Delicious.

Callipygia, you're going to laugh. By accident I hit some key and the photo of the lo mein ended up being my desktop photo! Talk about salivating -- every time I turn on my computer, I have giant lo mein staring at me. It makes me so hungry!

Kevin, agreed -- simple (really) and tasty (very)!

Aimee, your app sounds delicious. Have you posted the recipe?

OOO, just what I didn't need to see. I try to limit myself to only a few sauces & vinegar to keep the pantry clutter down. I may be purchasing this if I see it.

I love using oyster sc for any of my cooking!.Your lo mein look great! I usually add extra thick soy sc and spicy sc to make ex kick!! love to have a plate right now!

Last week, while lost in Boston (literally) looking for the Garden (TD North or whatever), we wound up driving through Chinatown and ALL I wanted to do was park the car and start shopping! Your recipe for the lo mein looks amazing and I will definitely be trying it this weekend! Thank you for sharing :)

Oyster sauce is one that I do like to keep on hand. It gives such an nice, earthy element to Chinese food. Your noodle dish looks so good, I could eat it right now for breakfast.

Yum. I think I know what I want for lunch today!!! :)

oh YUM. i'm totally sensitive to MSG as well, so thanks for the head's up. i bet you this tasted even better heated up the next day!

Hi there!
Thank you for sharing this recipe - It looks delicious. Have you read Jennifer 8. Lee's book "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles"? If you like American Chinese food, it is REALLY interesting.

Good to hear about oyster sauce! Its one of those things I've been vaguely aware of, but I've never really looked into it or tried it myself.

Susy, it's always a challenge to figure out what to keep in a small pantry space. I think this would be one of my essentials, because it adds that umami quality to so many dishes.

Beachlover, I do like mixing this with something spicy like chili paste with garlic.

Dawn, that darned Big Dig has made it impossible to find almost anything in downtown Boston. A Chinatown exploration would have been fun!

Natashya, I've eaten it for breakfast many times!

Cherie, and for lunch, too!

WANF, I really don't have a problem with the MSG in this, but I'm curious to try some of the non-MSG brands (see Julia's comment above).

Katherine, I've read it and loved it. The book really speaks to the Chinese food I grew up with.

Mike, Asian condiments will change your cooking forever. Do try this sauce, especially if there's a good Asian grocer near you.

i've never tried oyster sauce. it has always scared me... but you've convinced me. this looks great :)

Oyster sauce seems to be the "magic" flavoring to so many dishes. When i find that one of my dishes is lacking something, I splash in a bit of this sauce and it's an amazing transformation!

Heather, don't be scared -- it really does not smell or taste like oysters, but like a wonderfully thick and gloppy soy sauce crossed with hoisin. In other words, it's delicious!

WORC, I do the same, and oyster sauce ends up in very unlikely dishes -- like beef stew. For me it's an almost perfect taste!

Hi, sorry I'm new to cooking. What do you mean when you say measurements in parts? 3 parts this, 2 parts that...what is a "part"?

Mnn Mmn, this looks YUMMY! I just made a stir fry with friends last night after their own trip into chinatown. (We're outside Boston) Next time, Ill be sure to stock up on Oyster sauce, and egg nooodles. Num num yum.

Wow. This is a great sauce recipe. Lo Mein is my three-year-old son's favorite dish but the recipe from Asian Noodles--which I love--is too "spicy" for him.

Looks delicious! Question about the recipe, though, why reserve the cooking water from the noodles? Am I missing something? I've read it five times now and can't figure it out!

[Thanks for the catch! I've updated the recipe. Lydia]

Thank you for the Lo mein recipe. I found this awesome new Pho-making kit called Happy Pho by this woman who used her grandparents' recipe to make them. They come in a box with a spice packet and a pack of pho noodles for 2 people. I was skeptical at first, but they have a simple recipe at the back that takes 15 mins. All I need to get is some chicken or beef broth and fresh ingredients, and the Pho that came out is absolutely delicious! It's also all natural and organic and made with brown rice. Check out their products here http://staranisefoods.com/our-products.aspx. I got them from Whole Foods in SoMa. But you can also get them from Amazon.com I think.

Way too salty for me. With over 700 mg of sodium in the oyster sauce, adding soy to it was overkill. 3-2-1 is good, try 3 oyster 2 hoisin and 1 sesame oil. Much better mix, IMO.

Tof, thanks for your comment. I always use reduced-sodium soy, and I find that it's just the amount my family loves. And, again for us, the hoisin would make it too sweet. But I also love when readers adjust recipes to their own taste, so thanks for letting us know what works for you.

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