Header image courtesy of @lkkeurope (Instagram)
Confucius said, “Do not eat if sauces and seasonings are not correctly prepared.” Yes, we’re not joking. Most people know him as the great Chinese philosopher and thinker whose words shaped a huge part of Chinese ethics and beliefs, but few know that the man was also a huge foodie.
He was also absolutely correct in his insistence on the right condiments being used in cooking—seasoning can make or break a dish! We’ve already explored Hong Kong’s homegrown soy sauces in the first part of this series, so delve further with us into the wide world of Chinese seasoning with Hong Kong’s best oyster sauces.
It’s a real testament to its popularity in Chinese cuisine that most Asians feel like oyster sauce has always been a part of their standard range of must-have kitchen condiments. In actual fact, oyster sauce was only invented in the late nineteenth century—a veritable baby when compared to others in the condiments family such as soy sauce.
As legend has it, the founder of the famous Lee Kum Kee brand, Lee Kum Sheung, created this sauce entirely by accident in 1888. Oysters were part of the menu in his teahouse in Guangdong, and one day, he forgot that he left some on the stove. When he finally rushed to check on the dish, the liquid had reduced to a thick brown paste with a strong taste, and the oyster sauce was thus born.
Of course we’d start talking about brands with Lee Kum Kee, the name that has made oyster sauce famous. The company moved from mainland China to Macau in 1902, then to Hong Kong 30 years later. This city is where they expanded their business to the rest of the world, and remains the location of the Lee Kum Kee headquarters to this day, though the Hong Kong facility is now the smallest and only produces their premium line of oyster sauce.
Lee Kum Kee’s oyster sauce is so well-loved that it was even chosen to be included in spacecraft projects in 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2016—the sauce was spotted on the International Space Station in the footage of American astronaut Scott Kelly having Thanksgiving dinner.
This year, the brand and its signature product turn 132 years old, and the original recipe has purportedly not changed from its roots. Buy the bottle with the retro label bearing the image of a boy and a woman in a boat—this is of a better quality than the line with the panda.
Yu Kee was founded in the 1960s by a man surnamed Chan, who bred oysters in the Shajing district of Guangdong. He then moved to Hong Kong, picking Lau Fau Shan to continue his oyster breeding business because the area is where fresh and saltwater meet, and oysters naturally thrive in estuarine bodies of brackish water.
Yu Kee Oyster Sauce has a thinner consistency than brands such as Lee Kum Kee or Amoy, but nevertheless has an umami flavour and a hint of the ocean. Supposedly each batch is the product of over 200 oysters boiled down and extracted for the maximum in taste.
The brand has also split their oyster sauces into three gradings sold at different price points; these are differentiated by their bottle caps. The yellow-capped bottles are the cheapest, with the red-capped as a mid-priced product that is most readily available. They both contain thickeners, colourings, MSG, and additives. The gold-capped bottles are Yu Kee’s premium products, containing only oyster sauce, water, and salt—in other words, the purest and most traditional offering.
Lee Kum Kee’s closest competitor in the oyster sauce business was probably Hop Sing Lung. The founder is a Zhongshan native by the name of Chan Cheung-chi, who became involved in the fishing and oyster business after joining his father’s business in Nansui. He went on to operate in the same areas as the Lee family, establishing his oyster sauce business Oleo de Ostra Hap Seng Long in Macau in 1928. The rather unusual name was chosen to match the market as Macau used to be a Portuguese colony.
By the early 1950s, Hop Sing Lung had moved to Hong Kong, with their own oyster farm out in the New Territories and a shop in Kennedy Town. Roughly a decade later, their products were distributed by hundreds of stores locally and were also exported to the US. The brand gained further prominence when American Chinese chef Eileen Lo Yin-fei recommended their oyster sauce over Lee Kum Kee’s in her book Chinese Chicken Cookbook. It’s said that Hop Sing Lung’s sauce is more balanced compared to Lee Kum Kee’s, which is more brash and bold.
Companies Registry records show that the Hop Sing Lung Oyster Sauce Company was dissolved in 2004, but its trademark was registered by Mon Chong Loong Trading Corporation of New York that same year. It appears that Hop Sing Lung has all but disappeared from Hong Kong shelves, but it’s still in retail in America, and can also be purchased online.
We mentioned that oyster sauce feels as ubiquitous in Chinese cooking as soy sauce, but it is primarily a Southern Chinese condiment. Oysters were mostly cultivated in Hong Kong, Guangdong, and nearby areas, and that is where it remains the most popular. Of course, with the Chinese diaspora, this sauce has since spread to the far corners of the globe—anywhere where there are Chinese restaurants—and have firmly rooted itself in the kitchens and palates of foodies worldwide.
Apart from Cantonese dishes, oyster sauce is also well-utilised in hearty Shandong cuisine, the numbing spicy foods of Sichuan, and the seafood-dominated and stew-based cuisines of Jiangsu and Zhejiang. It brings out umami flavours in dishes, enhancing the taste of individual dishes without hampering their originality. It also does the additional job of enriching colours and creating a sauce base for dishes. As tasty as this sauce is though, don’t be too heavy-handed as its salty richness can easily overwhelm more subtle flavours!
Fans of oysters prepared the Western way—freshly shucked in the shell, with a tangy drizzle of lemon juice, chopped shallots, or Tabasco—will find that oyster sauce is an entirely different beast. While raw oysters are fresh, briny, and slightly sweet, oyster sauce is much richer, salty, full of umami, with a hint of caramel.
In Hong Kong, you’ll mostly find it in stir-fry dishes, stews, and drizzled on top of plain cooked vegetables. It is also often used in marinating ingredients.
There are various kinds of oyster sauce on the market, with varying ingredients and production methods used. The exact measurements and methods are jealously guarded secrets, but essentially, the traditional steps as follows.
As described, “true” oyster sauce of the highest quality should be made by making a broth, then reducing the liquid until the extracted flavours are condensed and caramelised. No other flavours should even be needed as oysters are already briny and savoury enough. However, this method is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to produce.
Nowadays, most manufacturers produce their oyster sauces en masse, cooking and flavouring with oyster essence or extract, darkening colours with caramel, and thickening with cornstarch, all done alone automatic production lines. There are also other kinds of modern oyster sauces available on the market.
Most oyster sauces available contained added monosodium glutamate (MSG) to really boost those umami flavours. In recent years, some have eschewed MSG in the fears that it is detrimental to health, so non-MSG varieties of condiments have been created, including oyster sauce. Note that MSG is a naturally occurring chemical which oysters have a lot of anyway, so this simply means no extra has been added to the sauce instead of it being completely MSG-free.
Those who suffer from seafood allergies can still enjoy the umami bomb that is oyster sauce, albeit the vegetarian version. This is made with mushrooms—often the oyster or shiitake varieties—as they are a food that also has plenty of umami flavours. This is also generally sold at a lower price point than normal oyster sauce.