« Chili powder (Recipe: turkey and white bean chili) {gluten-free} | Main | Other People's Pantries #109 »

Oyster sauce (Recipe: shrimp lo mein)

Shrimp 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.

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

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.

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

Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.


mmm :) oh how i love oyster sauce :) my nini in malaysia use to fry up duck eggs omelette style and she would smear oyster sauce over it just b4 taking it out of he pan she would use that or hoisin! always have it as part of a side dish to most meals :)

That you could walk through that area in minutes...hard to believe now!

Love oyster sauce drizzled over Chinese greens, as you say, adds meatiness.

Sounds wrong, doesn't it.

As soon as the snow stops Im going to buy myself some of this. many thanks

I love oyster sauce. Do you happen to know of any brands that are gluten-free? I am hesitant to trust the labels on some of the "authentic" brands that can only be found in the Asian groceries.

Another interesting read, Lydia. I always enjoy my visits.

Your 3-2-1 sauce is similar to what I have made for years, from Jane Brody's Good Food book. But I usually make her beef lo mein - can't wait to try your shrimp version.

Is there a substitute for bean sprouts? I just haven't developed a fondness for them.

funny... I just saw a TV program on the Lee Kum Kee company and that very oyster sauce. They visited the factory (clean!) and the oyster farms off the pacific northwest coast. Couldn't tell you what channel or what show (too many channels to keep track!)
but I am going to get brave and buy a bottle!

Who would have realized oyster sauce is so new (well, relatively speaking)? I always learn something when visiting, and I love your updated pictures---so appetizing!

Kira, I've never had a duck egg omelet, but I've had oyster sauce on eggs and it is delicious.

Neil, when I think back on how little I knew about any cooking, let alone Asian cooking, way back then....

Milton, Carol: I think you'll like oyster sauce. I really do. It doesn't taste anything like oysters.

Alta, I do not, but I would love to hear from some of my GF readers who might have a suggestion. You might also check over at Gluten Free Goddess; Karina is so knowledgeable.

Joan, so sweet of you to say that.

Teresa, you can just leave the bean sprouts out. They add more crunch than flavor.

Sandie, I'm always happy if the photos look anything like the food! Not my strong suit.

Anyone know of a good vegetarian brand? [Or does such a thing even exist?] Oyster sauce was used in one of my favorite restaurant dishes back before I became a vegetarian, and I long for it.

Love shimp lo mein and oyster sauce. It looks delicious! I am lucky since we have a huge Asian grocery store nearby and I can find all these delicious condiments without a problem!

I have not used oyster sauce for a while now. But yes, some dishes just taste good in it.

I've had oyster sauce in the pantry for a decade...perfect for that quick pasta toss, like your yummy one here.

Panya, I hope one of my readers knows of a vegetarian brand. I don't, but I'd love to.

Debbie, nothing is as much fun as browsing the aisles in an Asian grocery store!

Tigerfish, there are other things that are similar, like hoisin. But I couldn't manage without oyster sauce.

Peter, I use it in beef stew, too!

Okay I thought I'd try to comment again since I love Oyster Sauce so much.

Let's see what happens. If you see the comment you'll know it worked!

When I was first starting to cook (newly married), my boss, who was Chinese, said that the "secret" ingredient for her stir-fries was oyster sauce - it is what made it authentic. Love that stuff! :)

Wikipedia has a page on Oyster Sauce here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oyster_sauce
When I was cruising in the pacific with more oyster available than you could shake a stick at, we made our own sauce, just from the oysters, no other ingredients. It was perfect, especially as I need a gluten free product. If you can gather oysters, why not try and make some yourself.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.