Many of the Asian and Chinese dishes included on this site, as well as others, call for oyster sauce. For good reason, we deemed it necessary to include it in our list of the Top 10 Ingredients for Your Chinese Pantry.
Oyster sauce, which may sound intimidating, is actually pretty mild and adds a ton of flavor and umami to whatever it’s used on.
Just add oyster sauce to make any food taste better.
What is oyster sauce?
Cantonese “ho yeow” is the standard pronunciation of the Chinese character for oyster sauce (háo yóu), a flavorful sauce frequently used in traditional Chinese cuisine. The rich oyster beds off the coast of Hong Kong and Guangdong made it a staple ingredient in the cuisines of southern China, particularly Cantonese and Guangdong. Since then, it’s been widely adopted across many Chinese cuisines and has become a staple in many other Asian dishes.
Oyster extract is the main ingredient in this seasoning sauce, which is why it is a deep brown color and extremely thick, with viscosity and texture akin to ketchup or barbecue sauce.
Cooking oysters in water until the liquid caramelizes and reduces into a tasty sauce is the traditional method used to make the sauce. Sugar, salt, and cornstarch thickeners are now standard ingredients in what is commonly referred to as oyster-flavored sauce (though you can find MSG-free versions).
What does it taste like?
Taste-wise, oyster sauce doesn’t have a very strong oyster flavor, but it does have the same briny umami notes that you’d find in oysters. You may expect an oceanic flavor from the name, but it’s actually milder than, for instance, fish sauce. Instead, it has a balance of saltiness, sweetness, and savoriness and is a must-have pantry ingredient that improves the taste and presentation of any dish.
What is it’s application?
Although oyster sauce is most commonly associated with Cantonese cuisine, it is highly regarded by Chinese cooks from around the country for its ability to provide depth and richness to dishes.
It’s a universal flavor that goes well with a wide variety of foods, including tofu, meat, vegetables, and seafood.
When marinating meat for stir-fries, we like to use a teaspoon or two of oyster sauce, and when making a sauce or braising meat, we like to use a tablespoon. It has a unique ability to elevate the taste of any meats used in stir-fries.
While oyster sauce goes well with a wide variety of dishes, some of our dim sum favorites that immediately come to mind include Chinese stuffed peppers, Hakka-style stuffed tofu, and Lo Bak Go daikon radish cake.
Dim sum and other Cantonese restaurants often provide a very basic vegetable side dish. It consists of blanched greens, such as Chinese broccoli or choy sum, and a savory sauce made with oysters, oil, and maybe a touch of sesame oil.
In our Ultimate Braised Tofu, a vegetarian meal that is a favorite of Sarah’s, this ingredient plays a pivotal role, bringing umami and richness to the dish.
Sticky Oyster Sauce Chicken, though, will give you a much better notion of how fantastic this stuff is. The dish’s true hero is this condiment or flavor.
Once you try the chicken and decadent sauce over a plate of steamed rice, you’ll see why it’s so beloved by Chinese chefs.
Oyster Sauce Purchase and Storage
In a Chinese supermarket, you’ll find a wide variety of brand names and prices. Don’t buy anything from the “ethnic” aisle or if it costs less than two dollars. They most likely contain artificial flavors.
You should shop for a more expensive product of better quality in your neighborhood Chinese market or online. One could spend no more than $5 or $6 on a high-end bottle. Even if you make our dishes once a week, a single bottle will last you a very long time.
Typically, we reach for Lee Kum Kee’s Premium Oyster Sauce. According to legend, Lee Kum Kee’s namesake founder, Lee Kum Sheung, invented the product by accident after leaving oysters in a pot of boiling water for too long.
In the image below, the regular Lee Kum Kee product is on the left, while the fancy stuff is on the right. Costing between $2.50 and $3.00 for a bottle of the regular stuff and upwards of $5.00 for a bottle of the premium stuff is not uncommon.
Once opened, put in the refrigerator. If you don’t get it filthy or mix it with anything else, it will keep for a year in the fridge. (From our own experience, it can be stored for even longer without any ill effects. Think it over and use your discretion.
Available in both gluten-free and vegetarian varieties
Gluten-free: The original recipe calls for wheat flour, but fortunately, Lee Kum Kee also offers a gluten-free option. For oyster sauce, choose the green-labeled Lee Kum Kee Panda Brand. Not only is it free of monosodium glutamate, but it tastes great!
Options Other Than Oyster Sauce
If the oyster sauce isn’t the major flavoring component, you can replace it with a vegetarian stir-fry sauce such as: