Oyster Sauce: An Accidental Seasoning

Oyster sauce is a relatively modern seasoning, unlike many other traditional Chinese ingredients that have been around for centuries and sometimes millennia. Oyster sauce was invented by Lee Kum Sheung in 1888. Lee was the founder of the world-famous Chinese food brand Lee Kum Kee. He is said to have invented oyster sauce by accident when he left a pot of oyster soup on the stove for too long and wound up reducing it to a thick, caramelized concentrate that we know today as oyster sauce.

Today, the Lee Kum Kee company continues to produce what is arguably the world’s most popular oyster sauce. The modern version contains more than just oysters and water, it is made with thickeners like cornstarch and wheat flour. These are necessary for providing a thick texture without reducing the sauce as much, which saves manufacturers money. Making oyster sauce the old fashioned way with oysters alone to provide the thickening would be very expensive. As a result, only a few companies are willing to put out a pure oyster sauce.

Along with the thickeners, some oyster sauces will have MSG added along with other flavoring additives like salt and sugar. Some brands contain soy sauce to enhance the deep brown color and make it closer to the deep brown that you would see in a true oyster reduction.

Oyster sauce flavor profile

The reduced oysters in oyster sauce enable it to give a rich savory flavor to any dish that you flavor with it. While it does not taste fishy, it does have a briny aroma. Oyster sauce is salty but less salty than soy sauce and sweeter than it too. A pure oyster sauce should also have a strong caramelized flavor as a result of the reduction process.

Health benefits of oyster sauce

You won’t get much nutrition from oyster sauce. It contains few minerals, a little protein and only a trace amount of cobalamin. Cobalamin is also known as vitamin B-12. That said, oyster sauce can have positive effects on health. You can use oyster sauce to treat or prevent:

  • Obesity: Oyster sauce is a great way to make food more flavorful without adding a significant amount of calories. It is low in fat and has only a small amount of sugar in a serving.
  • High cholesterol: Oyster sauce has no cholesterol, which means that you can use it as a part of a low-cholesterol diet.
  • Health concerns: The sodium content of oyster sauce is very high, which means that you may want to avoid it if you have high blood pressure. The amount of salt may not be a major issue since while the amount of salt in a tablespoon-sized serving is high, that one tablespoon is all you need for a dish that can serve multiple people. You may be able to mitigate the effects by limiting additional salt.

Common uses

Oyster sauce is most often used in stir-fried dishes, especially those containing leafy greens. It is effective for reducing their bitterness. Oyster sauce is also used as a source of umami in Cantonese dishes like stir-fried beef, Chinese broccoli or baby bok choy in oyster sauce. It shows up in recipes from other parts of China as well, including ones from Sichuan. You will see it used in some recipes for mapo tofu.

In Thailand, you may see oyster sauce show up in recipes for cashew chicken and some versions of drunken noodles. Also, it plays a role in Vietnamese bo lu lac, also called shaking beef.