Maybe you use a ton of fish sauce, hoisin sauce, black vinegar, and chili oil, but is oyster sauce a part of your essential Asian food pantry yet? Here’s why it should be.
In that I’m still teaching myself to love some of the vegetables I grew up hating, I’m not unlike Queenie—our family’ puppy in the ‘80’s—and our method for persuading her to take her medicine. We swaddled hot-pink monster pills in bologna, cloaked them in peanut butter, and tucked them into cubes of ham. Most of the time Queenie gulped them down happily, smiling in that way dogs do. Very occasionally she’d cotton on to us, leaving a sticky pill behind, licked clean of its peanut butter.
I’m not above comparing myself to a canine when it comes to my love of oyster sauce, my new favorite condiment, which I feel like could make most any vegetable pill easier to swallow.
The stuff caught my eye when bok choy came into season at my farmer’s market. I’d never cooked bok choy and only seem to enjoy it when it’s prepared perfectly at Chinese restaurants, so I poked around online, looking for a way to replicate those recipes. When I spied this New York Times recipe espousing the virtues of oyster sauce and bok choy together, I gave it a whirl at home, and was instantly smitten.
Oyster sauce typically contains oysters, water, salt, sugar, MSG, and sometimes corn starch, wheat flour, or caramel color. You can find it in some grocery stores and most Asian markets, often sporting an eye-catching label. Very slightly sweet and salty in equal measure—but primarily packing the briny punch of oysters into each taste—with a satisfyingly viscous texture, it was fabulous spun with sweet soy sauce and drizzled over steamed bok choy.
I’ve been eating a lot of Chinese food lately, stocking up my pantry, and have been finding new ways to incorporate oyster sauce every time I cook Asian food. As is true of seafood and pork together, oyster sauce and ground pork are fantastic in one bite. A recent standby has been to boil vermicelli noodles, sauté ground pork with ginger, garlic, and shallots, and toss both with a combo of sweet soy sauce, regular soy sauce, fish sauce, and a lot of oyster sauce. The briny, salty, sweet result accentuates all those punchy aromatics.
And that’s not all you can do with it. Oyster sauce is a key part of this classic beef and broccoli dish. It can be thinned out with water and poured over baked or fried fish. You can stir-fry wild mushrooms in it. As is true of oysters themselves, oyster sauce is butter-friendly, and together they make a mean sauce for mussels.
Note that most recipes involve combining oyster sauce with something else—often soy—and using it as a finishing touch as opposed to a marinade. So as was true of my fish sauce, I’ll be looking for an excuse to add a few drops of oyster sauce to my food in the coming weeks—and am grateful that at $3 a bottle it’s a whole lot cheaper than a dozen on the half-shell.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.