Vegetarian Oyster Sauce
 

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Q. Where can I find vegetarian oyster sauce?  Any recommended brands? Thanks! 
    Beverly K, Illinois

A. While those of you who are vegetarian Asian food lovers will immediately understand Beverly’s question, and, I think, be intrigued with the answers, I know some of you are saying “Vegetarian what?” But bear with me (and Beverly) here for a bit.

First off, let’s look at what conventional, i.e., non-vegetarian, oyster sauce is: a basic Chinese cooking and seasoning sauce --- like hoi sin sauce, or fermented black bean sauce. It’s used for dipping, marinating, stir-frying and seasoning various Asian dishes, and it contains “oyster extractives” (I personally don't want to think too much about what exactly these are or how they are "extracted").
Oyster Sauce is highly flavored: savory-with-a-touch-of-sweet (in this sense it is like Pickapeppa. It is deep brown in color, smooth, rich, and thick, though thinner in consistency than a paste. It does not taste at all fishy (very differently from the ubiquitous and extremely fishy Thai fish sauce, nam pla). Oyster Sauce is used as an ingredient in many now-classic Chinese recipes, especially Cantonese, but was invented relatively recently, in the late 19th century, by chef-entrepreneur Lee Kam Sheung. He later founded the food-manufacturing company Lee Kum Kee, which is still around and thriving.

Vegans and lacto-ovo vegetarians choose not to eat foods containing fish. But if they happen to be, as well, serious lovers of good food, they, like their non-vegetarian counterparts, are always on the look-out for good ingredients and new flavors. As a vegetarian and serious food-lover, this sometimes requires not exactly meat or fish substitutes, but meat or fish parallel universes.  While vegetarian oyster sauce is not in the same category as, say, soy milk (in terms of a daily-use parallel vegetarian universe), those v’s who are exploring Asian food will be thrilled to have it in their repertoire. In addition, any Asian food fan with a shellfish allergy --- which conventional oyster sauce will set off big time --- will be glad to know about this, too.

Do a bit of label-reading at your local Asian food store and you'll see that most vegetarian
oyster sauces rely on shiitake mushrooms in lieu of oyster. This makes sense from a food
chemistry standpoint: both oysters and shiitake mushrooms contain an intense flavor-enhancing compound, the natural version of MSG. This is one reason why a visit to your Asian market is helpful: you’ll want to do some label-reading. Cheaper brands often stint on the real thing by loading up MSG. You want an MSG-free variety.

All oyster sauces, vegetarian or otherwise, must be refrigerated once they’ve been opened. While most brands are bottled, some come in a can. Canned varieties will last longer and retain better flavor if transferred into a clean jar for storage, and then refrigerated.

Click to enlarge
No local Asian market? Here are connections to several online sources.
         
http://importfood.com/sadf2001.html   
         
http://store.foodfightgrocery.com/veoysa.html (a vegan online grocery), and
         
http://home.lkk.com/product/foodservices_oyster.asp (fourth down on page... This is the company founded by Lee Kam Sheung, Mr. Oyster Sauce himself; although they sell only in food-service sizes, it’s an interesting site).
I haven't tried these sauces side by side, so I can't vouch for or rate them personally. If any of you PV site readers do so and taste comparatively, I and other site readers would be intrigued to know your results, and I’ll post them here.

 

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