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.
Oyster sauce adds richness and umami -- the fifth, "meaty" taste -- to restaurant style Chinese greens, vegetables in garlic oil, stir-fried broccolini, pan-seared vegetable wrapped scallops, and pad see ew. I always add a bit to beef stew and fried rice, for an extra dose of umami.
And it's the "2" in the 3-2-1 Cantonese and Szechuan Trinities, my basic all-purpose stir-fry sauces.
Shrimp 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 or linguine)
2 tsp peanut or canola oil
4-5 scallions, chopped (set aside 2 Tbsp)
1 clove garlic, peeled, sliced thin
1/2 cup sliced button or shiitake mushrooms, stems removed
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
3/4 lb large shrimp (31-40 per-pound size)
2 cups mung bean sprouts (optional), rinsed under cold water
Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a stock pot; 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 pasta according to package directions). Do not cook all the way through; the noodles will finish cooking in the sauce. Drain, but do not rinse, and reserve the cooking water.
In a large wok or frying pan, heat the oil. Add the scallions and stir fry for 1 minute. 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, then add the shrimp and cook for 2 minutes, until they just begin to turn pink and curl. Add the cooked noodles and the bean sprouts, and stir thoroughly and constantly for 2-3 minutes, turning the noodles over and over, until the ingredients are combined and the sauce is absorbed into the noodles. If needed, add more soy sauce and oyster sauce, to taste. Serve hot or at room temperature.
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