Sunday, November 12, 2006

What's in my frig?

One thing that is always in my refrigerator is a bottle of oyster sauce. Like fish sauce, I always wonder how they get a taste of the fish. Same here with oyster sauce: how exactly do they get the taste of the oyster? Well, it actually doesn't have a strong oyster taste. Instead, to me, it's like a creamy soy sauce. The ingredients include oyster extract, whatever that means, and your basic sugar, wheat flour for the caramel color, and MSG. Yes, it includes MSG so you probably don't want to use that much of it if you're allergic to MSG.

For me, you actually don't need much of oyster sauce in your Chinese cooking. Oyster sauce is a dish enhancer that you use to finish off your stir-fry or other dishes. It has a full-body taste and gives great flavoring, but all you need is maybe a tablespoon.

My mom always had two types of oyster sauce in her refrigerator: a cheap brand and premium. The cheap brand was used for dishes where she needed a lot of oyster sauce for taste early in the cooking process. The premium bottle was used almost like ketchup to top off a dish. (It's a similar approach to extra virgin olive oil: cheap brand for cooking and premium oil for finishing a dish.) Since I don't use a lot of oyster sauce in my cooking because of the sodium, I basically just use the premium brand in all my cooking. (When you shop for your oyster sauce in the Asian grocery store, you'll know the premium brand just by the higher price that's charged. At grocery stores like Safeway, they usually stock just the premium brand.)

The classic brand from Hong Kong is Lee Kum Kee that has been around for years. I always go for this brand when I shop. A competing brand that is also OK is Panda. Either one, you can't go wrong in your dishes by using this thick, flavorful sauce. Above, you see I even drizzle it on steamed brussel sprouts that are in season right now. Oyster sauce holds up well against any dark greens like brussel sprouts, broccoli and gai lan (also known as Chinese broccoli).

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