Oyster sauce is a ubiquitous pantry staple in Chinese households across the world. A sweet and salty viscous pop of flavor, it’s fundamentally a combination of soy sauce, cornstarch, sugar and oyster essence. The saltiness from the soy sauce balances out the sugar, and the oyster essence adds a punchy layer of umami that can’t be found anywhere else. It is immensely versatile; throw a tablespoon of it into a stir-fry, your instant noodle packet, or the wok when making fried rice. It can also be added to marinades and braises to add depth. Unlike soy sauce, which can be overwhelmingly salty at times, oyster sauce occupies that perfect space between sweet, savory and umami.
While other Chinese condiments—like soy sauce and rice wine—have been around for millennia, oyster sauce is actually a relatively recent invention. It was allegedly thrown together by accident in the late 19th century by a man named Lee Kum-sheung when he was working at a small teahouse in China’s Guangdong province. Lee would eventually go on to start the multi-billion dollar Chinese sauce brand Lee Kum Kee.
“One day, he was cooking oysters in his teahouse, but he was so busy he forgot to extinguish the fire in the stove. When he smelled a strong aroma from the kitchen, he rushed back [to the stove] fearing that the oyster was overcooked,” Lee Kum Kee’s marketing officer Francis Chan told the South China Morning Post in 2018. “However, what he found was a thick layer of dark brown paste on the wok with a fabulous taste—this was the birth of the oyster sauce.”
What was initially a delicious accident was eventually parlayed into an international company that now sells sauces in over 100 countries. The Lee Kum Kee family today has a fortune of about $15 billion, and while they manufacture a wide range of condiments, oyster sauce remains one of their signatures.
At home, the easiest way to cook with oyster sauce is to dilute it with a bit of water, mix it up, and drizzle it over a plate of quickly blanched greens. This was something I picked up when I lived in Hong Kong; it’s a common side dish there and takes less than a minute to throw together.
But my absolute favorite way to use oyster sauce is to incorporate it in a marinade with a bit of cooking wine, sugar and garlic. Think of it as a teriyaki sauce, but with oyster sauce instead of soy sauce and honey. This universal concoction can work well slathered over chicken or pork; for those who don’t eat meat, just swap in vegetarian oyster sauce and drizzle over meaty chunks of oyster mushrooms or tofu.
Cooking time: 15 minutes, not including prep or marinade time
1. Combine the ingredients for the marinade and stir until the sugar is dissolved.
2. In a plastic bag or container, combine the wings and the marinade. Shake until incorporated and refrigerate overnight or for up to a day.
3. In a wok or a large frying pan over medium-high heat, add canola oil. Heat until it starts shimmering.
4. Add in the chicken wings and the sauce, stir it around, and cover the pan with a lid and cook for 10-15 minutes.
5. At this point, the sauce should be reduced to a sticky consistency. Mix it up with a spatula so that it doesn’t stick to the pan. When the sauce has completely evaporated, turn off the heat and serve.
East West Bank serves as a cultural and financial bridge between the U.S. and China. For more home recipes, follow Clarissa’s deep dive into how to use popular Chinese pantry products.