Oyster sauce chronicles

There are three essential ingredients in a Chinese oyster sauce, so far as I can make out from the labels: oyster juice, sugar, and monosodium glutamate. Corn starch is needed to adjust the texture, but I should think rice or potato starch might serve equally well.

In the Chinatown grocery I most frequent, bottles of this delicious substance are available for around two dollars each. But I found one brand in a special section — marked in Chinese, I had thought, for a “sale” — that was six dollars. The label included a delightful wood-engraved depiction of an oyster, from which I guessed what the bottle must contain. It was set within classical Chinese typography (no simplified characters). Judge the book by its cover!

Now, don’t get me wrong. The venerable Hong Kong company, Lee Kum Kee, which has, over the last six generations, built a fortune on oyster sauce, and at least fifty-seven other popular sauces and condiments, so that it might be considered China’s answer to Heinz, makes a very acceptable oyster sauce for around two dollars. And for a fact I know it is bottled under hygienic factory conditions, or was when (as a hack business journalist) I once visited one of their plants. I will offer no criticism of this worthy commercial establishment.

And while I do not know this for a fact, I did once purchase a cheaper variety of oyster sauce, which could not have been made from oysters. Perhaps some more plentiful marine mollusc was inducted, to provide a “fishy” taste, but I doubt even that. From the aftertaste, I’d have guessed industrial by-products from some other Mainland source. It did prove an excellent toilet cleaner, but I wouldn’t use it on counters.

Never cut corners like this yourself, gentle reader! If the market rate for a substance is around two dollars, acclimatize yourself to the expenditure. Less will not be more — not in the world of food processing and packaging!

Conversely, I found the idea of paying six dollars for a bottle of oyster sauce too attractive to pass up.  My reasoning was, that if I could derive such pleasure as I had from the basic commercial product, what ecstasies might await at treble the price?

Too, this more expensive variety had been slipt to the shelves in an admirable way. The bottle entirely ignored Canadian labelling requirements, including the usual incomprehensible health and nutritional warnings, and made no use of either official language. It had to be good.

And it was, … and I am writing this only to express my lament that the bottle is now empty, and my regret that its fellows are now removed from display in Chinatown, perhaps by our NFG (national food gestapo), so that I have no idea where to find another.

There was indeed no list of ingredients on that bottle that I could discover — though my Chinese is imperfect — so I am left to speculate what the secret was. Here, if gentle reader will permit, is my theory of the matter.

It is that, the bottle contained oyster, and nothing but oyster, patiently reduced and carmelized, conferring an enchantingly natural sweetness, with nothing superadded except, of course, salts from the seawater employed in the boiling.

That, it had been made from intentionally selected, superior specimens of the beautifully elongated and large Crassostrea angulata — the oriental oyster par excellence — probably sun-dried in preparation.

That, there was no hurrying in the course of this preparation.

That, for the very love of a fine oyster sauce, a great deal of attentive labour had gone into the production, by men of skill and experience and indifference to competition.

Well, as they say, that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.