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Oysters and Oyster Sauce

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Fish and Seafood

Winter Volume: 2014 Issue: 21(4) pages: 34 to 35

The commercial thick brown sauce popular and used today in many Chinese dishes or as a condiment and called oyster sauce came on the market in 1888. It did so thanks to its fine aroma emitted after over-cooking some oysters. Recognition was made by Lee Kam Sheung when he realized the aroma came from the very oysters he was cooking. Soon thereafter, he made and began selling this thick brown sauce we now commonly call oyster sauce.

What we buy is not simply long and slow-cooked oysters and water as his was, but oysters and/or oyster extract, sugar, salt, even caramel coloring. If you purchase vegetarian oyster sauce, that product is made with shiitake and/or other mushrooms substituted for the oysters and oyster extract, and the other ingredients.

As to the main ingredient in this sauce, a few hundred years ago oysters were more popular and more plentiful than they are now. They are increasing as seafood researchers and fishermen and women, too, have learned how to farm oysters. This is no easy task nor a quick one, either. It takes about three to five years to raise oysters to adulthood. In Hong Kong, this is done north of Yuen Long in the New territories, and elsewhere. In that town are many oyster restaurants, also in Lau Fau Shan. From them, trucks take the oysters to Hong Kong, Kowloon, and to China where they are most appreciated.

Oysters are bivalves that begin their lives as what are termed 'sprats.' This is the technical term for very baby ousters, minuscule creatures millions of which emerge from one oyster parent. They are next moved many times in their maturation process. Usually, the sprats are moved soon or immediately after birth, then again at about eight months. Then they are moved onto tiles or similar grabbing places, then moved at least once again as small adults. This is true for European oysters, the Ostra edulis, and the Asian oyster, even the very large Giant Pacific Oyster which is not a true oyster. The Pinetada maxima or its close cousin, the Pinetada margaritifera can have a pearl under its muscle. While delicious, this oyster is really too expensive for most to consider purchasing and eating.

When one gets an oyster to open, one needs to insert a knife--preferably one with a rounded top end, obviously called an oyster knife. It needs to go into the hinge of this bivalve to detach the muscle, then snap the ligament and still using that knife, cut the oyster out. This is best done from the flat side of the shell.

For the record, related to oysters, are cockles, crayfish, lobsters, mussels, periwinkles, shrimp, prawns, scallops, scampi which look like lobsters squid, and other similar or related sea creatures.

Oysters are called hao or mu li in Chinese, and they can be eaten raw or roasted, used for food other ways actually any other heated ways. The Ostrea gigas are usually located in tidal waters in Asia and elsewhere and they are found in Macao, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the New territories of Hong Kong, the estuaries of China's Pearl River, and elsewhere. The Taiwanese adore them as do other Chinese, and they like them best in omelettes called o-ah-chien. They eat them that way often, so do their Fujianese neighbors, and other Chinese.

Oyster sauce is made by salting the oysters fir half an hour, then boiling them in fresh water for an equal amount of time, and reusing that very water with another batch of fresh oysters. The muscles of these bivalves are then set aside for for about ten hours in the sun, ten more hours in the shade, then coated with oil before selling them. They are usually sold within a week or two as 'fresh dried oysters.' They keep for a week or two before soiling, and they are less expensive than long-dried oysters. Fresh-dried, they can be vacuum sealed for longer storage.

The liquid collected reused from the many decantings of added batches of oysters gets darker and darker, thicker and thicker, too. It becomes oyster sauce and then is bottled and sold as the oyster sauce we recognize. It is thick and brown Very thick oyster sauce can also be made adding cornstarch; that is of a lower quality. There is an intermediate step which is packing it in pottery jars for a day or two, then decanting it into larger pottery tubs and sealing them and setting them aside for half a year or up to two years before actually putting it into bottles for sale.

Keep in mind that the oyster sprats began in brackish shallow tidal water ever-moving and changing. The sprats need a few years to grow into the adults we know and eat raw or cooked. They do change their shells several times in this growth process.

Speaking of eating oysters, Chinese and other Asians like them fresh, dried, marinated, and many other ways, and they like them smoked, and cooked, too. hey now and you should, too, to discard any that have not opened when cooked, and those with broken shells. One does this for health reasons as they can make an eater very ill.

Oysters are available fresh, dried, smoked, or simply raw/. these bivalves are great plain or with some citric or piquant liquid to enliven their taste. The recipes below are just a few of the ways Chinese use them. Many in Taiwan call them the 'milk of the sea." We know not why, do you?
Oysters, Deep-fried, and Chinese style
30 freshly shucked oysters, any liquid from them set aside
2 teaspoons ginger, peeled and minced
1/4 cup dry white wine mixed with the liquid from the shucked oysters
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
3 Tablespoons cornstarch
dash of sugar
dash of salt
1 cup sesame seeds
1 cup vegetable oil for deep frying
batter to coat the oysters with (optional) made with 1 teaspoon baking powder, 4 Tablespoons cornstarch, 1 tablespoon melted lard
1. Soak oysters with ginger, wine, oyster and lemon juices for half an hour,then drain and mix with the cornstarch, sugar,and salt. Set aside for one hour.
2. Heat wok or fry pan, add the oil, and put the oysters in a strainer and shake them in the shake off excess cornstarch and sesame seeds before putting them in the hot oil for one minute. Remove and drain them on paper towels and serve. Note: for the batter, mix baking powder, cornstarch, and melted lard and coat the oysters, then drain excess batter, and deep fry for one minute, then toss with any excess sesame seeds.
Oysters and Tofu with Black Bean Sauce
25 oysters, shucked and rinsed well
3 Tablespoons mixed cornstarch and water chestnut flour, divided in half
1/2 pound silken tofu, cut nto one-inch squares
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 heaping Tablespoon fermented black beans rinsed
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, rinsed
1 teaspoon fresh garlic, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon minced green part of a scallion
1 small piquant chili pepper, seeded and minced
2 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1. Toss the oysters with half the flour and set them aside.
2. Put tofu in boiling water for one minute, then drain and set this aside.
3. Heat the wok or fry pan, add the oil, and stir-fry the black beans for one minute, then add the ginger, garlic, scallion pieces, and the chili pepper and stir-fry for one more minute then add the oysters and the tofu, and stir-fry another minute. Next, add the soy sauce, rice wine, and the rest of the flour. Toss well and serve immediately.
Stuffed Loofah with Oysters and Shrimp
2 loofah (silk squash) peeking their exterior strands
1/2 pound small oysters
1/2 pound small shrimp, peeled, their veins removed, and both discarded
2 Tablespoons ground pork
1 egg white
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 tablespoons cornstarch, divided
a few lettuce eaves
1/2 cup chicken stock
1. Peel the loofah and cut into one-inch circles removing some but not all the seeds with a teaspoon, and discard them.
2. Chop the oyster and the shrimp, and mix them with ground pork, egg white, and salt and pepper, and half the cornstarch. Dust the other half of the cornstarch on one side of each piece of loofah, then stuff a heaping tablespoon on cornstarch side and top with another slice, cornstarch side facing the stuffing.
3. Put these slices on heatproof deep plate and steam over boiling water for eight minutes.
4. Remove the stuffed slices ,ad put any liquid left in the bowl with the stock, and boil reducing this to about three tablespoons. Pour this over the stuffed slices, and serve.
Oysters and Bitter Gourd
1/2 cup bitter gourd sliced thinly
1 Tablespoon coarse salt
1/4 cup sweet potato flour
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon chicken bouillon powder
1 cup small oysters
1 egg, beaten until lemon ellow
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1. Toss the bitter gourd slices with the salt and allow to rest for one hour. Then rinse them and dry the slices well.
2 Mix four, sugar, bouillon powder, and the oysters and beaten egg.
3. Heat a wok or fry pan, add the oil, then the oyster mixture and fry just until set, then turn it over and fry the second side until it is just about to set, then put it on a pre-heated plate or platter, and cut into six or sight wedges, and serve.
Oyster-egg Pancakes
3 to 4 cups oysters
1 teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 leek, cut in half the long way, then thin-sliced on an angle
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 cup chrysanthemum leaves, or water cress or bean sprouts, or all three, chopped
3 eggs, beaten lightly
hoisin sauce or black vinegar for dipping
1. Rub the oysters with the salt, then rince them well with cold water, drain, and dry them with paper towels. then mix them with the cornstarch and the leeks.
2. Heat wok or fry pan, and stir-fry the vegetables for one minute, the set them aside on a flat platter.
3. Add the oysters, one small ladle-full at a time, put one to two tablespoons of the egg over them and cook until almost done then turn this pancake on the other side. When alsmot set, remove to the platter and repeat until all the oysters are cooked with some egg.
4. Serve with the hoisin sauce or the vinegar on the side for dipping.
Dried Oysters with Hair Vegetable
8 large oysters
1 Tablespoon hair seaweed
1 Tablespoon soy bean paste
1 cup boneless barbecued pork or raw fish
2 slices fresh ginger
2 scallions
2 cloves fresh garlic, peeled
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1 cup cornstarch
1. Grind or mince the oysters, hair seaweed, soybean paste, pork or fish, ginger, scallions, and the garlic, then add the rice wine, then stir in the cornstarch and put into a small heatproof bowl.
2. Steam for forty-five minutes, then remove and set this on a plate with sides.
3. Thicken any liquid, if desired, then cut this into wedges, and pour the liquid over it, and serve.
Oyster Sausages
8 ounces dried oysters rinsed in hot water, then refresh the hot water and allow them them to sit in it for half an hour, then drain
1/4 pound raw fish
1/4 pound fully cooked ham
1/2 cup water chestnuts or bamboo shoots
1 cup soaked shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and discarded
1/4 cup canned bamboo shoots
3 slices fresh ginger
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup vegetable oil
several sprigs fresh coriander for garnish
1. Mince or grind the oysters, with the raw fish, ham, water chestnuts or bamboo shoots, mushrooms, and the ginger, then add the egg and shape into two- or three-inch round patties about one-quarter-inch thick.
2. Heat wok or fry-pan, add the oil, and fry te patties on one side, ten on the other side, until set and browned. Serve then with the garnish on top.
Smoked Oysters in Lotus LLeaf
2 cups short-grain sweet rice, soaked overnight.
10 medium-size Chinese mushrooms, soaked until soft, stems removed and discarded, sliced, their soaking water reserved
10 scallions, minced
4 Chinese sweet lop xongsausages, quartered engthwise, then thin sliced
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup Chinese rice wine
2 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
2 Tablespoons sesame oil
3 - 4 lotus leaves soaked for half an hour, the thick part of their center stems cut away, and discarded
5 slices fresh ginger, peeled, then minced
2 three-ounce cans of smoked oysters, drained and chopped
1.4 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
1. Mix rice, mushrooms, and the sausages and stir-fry them in the vegetable oil, then add the rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, and the mushroom water, and the smoked oysters with the rice mixture. 2. Put half the lotus leaves on the bottom of a heat-proof pie plate, and put the rice mixture on them, sprinkling the pine nuts on top, then cover with the rest of the lotus leaves.
3. Put a rack into a steamer over boiling water and steam this for forty-five minutes. Then remove the pie plate and put its contents on a platter. Allow to rest for fifteen minutes, then cut into wedges, and serve.

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