No shortcuts: That's Chef Brandon Jew's philosophy when it comes to creating a sweet, savory, and wonderfully balanced oyster sauce. The owner and executive chef of San Francisco's Mister Jiu's shared his lengthy labor-of-love process with Francis Lam.
Francis Lam: I love oyster sauce, and you love oyster sauce. Anyone who’s ever had beef and broccoli loves oyster sauce – whether they know it or not.
Brandon Jew: It’s true.
FL: But what is oyster sauce?
BJ: The way I’d describe oyster sauce is almost like barbecue sauce and fish sauce had a child.
FL: A pungent child that had trouble making friends in the schoolyard.
BJ: Yes. Stinky.
FL: But really sweet once you get to know him.
BJ: That’s right, it is sweet. Oyster sauce has a sweetness, but with a saline undertone that is a nice balance and tastes very natural with the sweetness that you find in seafood. In general terms, oyster sauce is a reduction of as purely oyster flavor as you can get. That's what you want. For sweetness we use brown rice syrup and molasses. The fermented, robust end of the oyster sauce comes from fermented bean paste. A lot of aromatics: ginger, soy, anchovies, tamarin, garlic; those are all the seasonings behind getting the sauce to round out.
FL: You cook those together with the molasses and brown rice syrup?
BJ: The first thing we do though is shuck raw oysters, take the shells and make a stock with just the shells.
FL: What?! This is getting to outer space now.
BJ: I know. But when I thought of how to get to this actual flavor, I decided it’s going to require reducing this flavor down as much as I can. We shuck the oysters and save all the liquor. We make a stock with seaweed, ginger, and the oyster liquid. Once that steeps for two to three hours, we strain it and poach the oysters in that broth. After that, we dehydrate the oysters. We then take garlic, ginger, onion, tamarind, anchovies, and we fry the dehydrated oysters in that. We start adding a little bit of malt vinegar, then the sugars – the molasses and brown rice syrup – and the soy. Fermented bean paste rounds out the very last part of it. Then it all gets pureed. I’m still tinkering with measurements. That’s why I have a recipe for you, but it’s definitely a working recipe.
FL: This is amazing, because it’s a level of complexity and depth in the preparation that certainly I’d never considered. Right now we’re in a moment where chefs in many different cuisines are interested in making their own breads, charcuterie, and pickles. Yet, for Asian cuisines, people still feel like, “That’s stuff you go to the store and buy.” So, I’m fascinated by why you chose to make this thing.
BJ: Thinking about my own ethos of how I want to eat, and also the integrity that I want to have behind my food, knowing that I can tell people that come to the restaurant that we’ve taken all these steps to make sure that all of the food being served is organic, local, small-farmed – these are things that we believe in. When you have that ethos, but then you also have bottles of oyster sauce, it just doesn’t make sense. A big part of my frustration about even Chinese food’s progression has been that it has relied on too much of the pantry to be store-bought. Because of that, there was no differentiation of Chinese-American food throughout America because all of it was basically being outsourced.
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