Oyster Sauce: Then and Now

Oyster Sauce: Then and Now
By Robert Danhi

Tenderizing meat marinades … tantalizing vegetable stir-fries … bubbling chicken clay pots … brilliant green plates of Chinese Broccoli … and piquant salad dressings are all places that our restaurant customers will find oyster-flavored sauce playing a leading role in Asian restaurants. Although it roots are traced back to China in the late 1800’s, oyster-flavored sauce is a staple Asian ingredient that is so essential to Asian cuisine that Chef Bob Tam, R&D Chef for PF Chang’s says “Oyster-flavored sauces are not just used in our Beef and Broccoli but it is a key ingredient in the Ginger Chicken; actually, we use oyster-flavored sauce in at least 35% of our menu items.” 

It is not only in casual dining restaurants and local eateries that oyster-flavored sauce is being utilized, even fine dining Asian restaurants such as Ana Mandara in San Francisco, where Contemporary Vietnamese cuisine is orchestrated by Executive Chef Khai Duong, highlighting oyster-flavored sauce in a side dish of Stir-Fried Snow Pea Sprouts, Garlic and Oyster flavored-sauce.

It All Began in an Asian Restaurant

In 1888, Mr. Kam Sheung Lee, a restaurateur in the costal village of Nanshui in Southern China, was preparing an oyster soup. At the end of the night, he left, and forgot to tend to the soup. The next morning, he returned to an aromatic kitchen with a pot of thick, dark sauce at the bottom of the pot. This “mistake” was the inspiration for the Lee family to become the pioneers of all modern-day Lee Kum Kee oyster-flavored sauces.

In 1902, they moved their production to the island of Macau to be close to the source of the integral ingredient, fresh oysters. During the beginning, customers would bring their own bottles to be filled. The popularity of this unique seasoning continued to grow and as Chinese began to relocate abroad, they could not do without this essential ingredient in their kitchens. So, export was inevitable, the first foreign market to really boom being the Chinese-dense city of San Francisco. In 1932, transportation of raw materials had become efficient and they moved to Hong Kong to establish Lee Kum Kee’s headquarters, where it remains today.

Just as it was made over 100 years ago, today, each batch begins with simmering shucked oysters. Lee Kum Kee’s oyster-flavored sauce is made from simmering a mixture of oyster extract, sugar, water, modified cornstarch, wheat flour and caramel color. Since the best oysters are so important to creating a high-quality sauce, Lee Kum Kee has farms that grow their oysters to their specifications. The premium oyster-flavored sauces have the most amount of oyster extractives by percentage. Also, for those vegetarian offerings on your menu, you can use Vegetarian Oyster-Flavored Sauce, which calls on Shiitake Mushrooms in replacement for the oysters, still yielding a deeply flavored umami-packed Asian ingredient.

So Many Uses!

Marinades, sauces, soups, vegetables, dips and even dressings, oyster-flavored sauce is one versatile ingredient. Oyster-flavored sauce has been on the move since the 1900’s and now is found to be used extensively across Southeast  Asia – in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and even the Philippines. Oyster-flavored sauce can be used right out of the bottle. If you have ever eaten Dim Sum and ordered Chinese Broccoli “Gai Lan” is piled high brilliant green and drizzled with pure oyster-flavored sauce, and Malaysian chefs drizzle it right on top of stir-fried lettuce. The salty, slightly sweet glistening sauce is a perfect yang to the crisp green yin of the simple greens.

Marinating meats and seafood not only imparts a deep flavor but also helps in the tenderization process as the sugar and salt help cure the meat, while the starch assists in holding in the moisture as it gets seared in the intensity of the wok. Usually, marinated proteins such as pork, beef, chicken, or even shrimp are grilled and the marinade caramelizes to create an intense flavor that satisfies.

I consider oyster-flavored sauce my secret (not anymore) weapon for ground meat mixtures – dumpling fillings, pate forcemeats and even American-style hamburgers and meatloaf, all of which gain a layer of complexity when oyster-flavored sauce is added. Moderation is the key with this application as the oyster-flavored sauce is used to increase the umami taste without overpowering the main ingredients.

Stir-fry sauces, dressings, dips and other liquid culinary staples are also common platforms for oyster-flavored sauce.  Take a peak into a Chinese kitchen and I guarantee oyster-flavored sauce will be right there with the soy sauce and other fundamental ingredients that make Asian food so satisfying.  

It fascinates me how an ingredient with just over 100 years history has already become an essential ingredient that many chefs could not do without! Incorporating oyster-flavored sauce into some of your cooking can add a depth of flavor, a savory aroma and a rich brown color. Try out the following recipes, a seared tuna dish that showcases Vietnamese flavors in a contemporary dish, and a classic Thai stir-fry with lots of oyster-flavored sauces and even more fresh Asian basil leaves. The next time you grab that bottle of oyster-flavored sauce, remember there’s over a century of history in that bottle!

Find out more about Chef Danhi Inc. at www.chefdanhi.com.

Seared Lemon Grass Tuna, Parilla Noodle Salad, Chili Sauce and Roasted Peanuts

1 ounce Lee Kum Kee Thai Sweet Chili Sauce
½  ounce Lee Kum Kee Fish Sauce
1 ounce lime juice
1 ½  ounces water
1 ounce lotus rootlets – sliced into ¼ -inch slices

Lemon Grass Marinade:

2 tablespoons Lee Kum Kee Oyster-flavored sauce
1 tablespoon Lee Kum Kee Fish Sauce 
1 tablespoon Lee Kum Kee Premium Soy Sauce
1 teaspoon Lee Kum Kee sesame oil 
1 tablespoon minced garlic
½ cup minced lemon grass (about 4 stalks)
2 tablespoons palm sugar (Vietnamese or Thai)
1 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper 
1 pound sashimi grade tuna (2-4 blocks)

¼  pound dried rice vermicelli noodles, cooked and cooled
1 ½  ounces julienned carrot
1 ½  ounces julienned cucumber
1 ½  ounces julienned green papaya
¼  cup Vietnamese parilla (¼ inch chiffonade)
¼  cup cilantro, whole leaves  
2 tablespoons fried shallots
2 tablespoons pan-roasted peanuts, coarsely crushed

Whisk together Thai sweet chili sauce, fish sauce, lime juice, and water. Taste and adjust seasoning to achieve a sweet and salty profile. Stir in lotus rootlets.

Whisk together marinade ingredients. Coat fish and marinate 1 hour.

Fold together the noodles, carrot, cucumber and papaya. Only add the herbs right before service.

Sear tuna for about 30 seconds on each side. Slice tuna into ¼ -inch thick slices. Place a pile of noodles on plate, top with sauce, arrange tuna and top with shallots and peanuts.

Thai Chicken Stir-Fry with Oyster-Flavored Sauce, Black Pepper and Basil


1 each Thai Bird chilies 
½ teaspoon cilantro root (substitute 1 tsp. minced stems) 
6 cloves garlic 
1 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper 
1 ounce neutral oil 
12 ounce chicken thighs, ¾  x 1 ½ inch strips 
1 each red bell pepper, ½ x 1 ½ inch strips 
3 tablespoons Lee Kum Kee Premium Oyster-flavored sauce 
1 teaspoon Lee Kum Kee Fish Sauce 
2 teaspoons Thai palm sugar 
½ cup loosely packed Thai Basil

Pound or mince chili and cilantro root finely, add garlic and coarsely pound or chop, transfer to bowl with peppercorns and mix well. Heat wok or sauté pan over high heat, add stream of oil around edges to coat entire surface. Add chicken and stir-fry until approximately 50% cooked, add garlic paste and peppers and continue to stir-fry until 90% cooked.

Add oyster and fish sauces and palm sugar.

Coat chicken well with sauce (taste and adjust as needed). Toss in basil leaves and immediately transfer to serving platter.

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