The discovery of oyster sauce started by accident way back in 1888. It all started in the Province of Guangdong, China, from a tea and oyster soup stall owned by Lee Kum Sheung. One day, a boiling batch of his oysters went overcooked, leaving a saucy savory brown liquid. That was when he discovered that the accidental savory brown sauce is a potential condiment for many Chinese cuisines. He started selling it in his community until he became a famous producer called oyster sauce.
Over the years, the oyster sauce became a staple in Chinese kitchens. The use of this condiment had spread throughout Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. Today, it’s common to see oyster sauce in most grocery stores.
The oyster sauce that we find in grocery stores contains oysters, water, salt, sugar, Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), modified corn starch, wheat flour, and caramel color.
What does it taste like? Oyster sauce is a fascinating mixture of sweet as dark caramel, salty as briny seawater, with a slight touch of a fishy odor, and tons of the savory taste of umami. To be clear, oyster sauce is less salty than soy sauce, and not fishy and odorous as fish sauce. You might even love the uniqueness of its smell if you balance the flavors of the ingredients in your recipe. This condiment enhances the flavors of various meat and vegetable dishes, salad dressings, noodles, soups, and stews.
On the other hand, some people might have the need to not use the oyster sauce for several reasons. Oysters belong to the animal kingdom. Hence, it would be a no-no option for vegans or vegetarians. Oysters are shellfishes, they’re recommended for people who are allergic to these kinds of seafood. And, there are people who just simply do not enjoy the smell of shellfish.
If you find the need to use the oyster sauce for your dish and you don’t have any in your pantry, or you want to avoid using it, here are conventional alternatives we suggest for you:
Substitutes for Oyster Sauce
1. Homemade Oyster Sauce
Originally, oyster sauce is made by over-reducing the oyster soup. That will surely take hours to finish reducing and, at the same time, require a lot of water and oysters. The oysters are taken out once the soup is reduced to a thick brown liquid. And then, a little sugar and sugar are added to enhance the flavor, and some dash of soy sauce to darken the color of the liquid.
You won’t probably regret making your own oyster sauce. Because in the end, it tastes better than the store-bought bottled or canned oyster sauce. The downside will cost you more because you will have to acquire fresh oysters, and it’s not the quickest solution you’d opt for.
2. Soy sauce
The origins of the use of soy sauce are traced back around 2,000 years ago in China. Soy sauce is brewed from fermented soybeans and brine solution. The fermentation process releases the sugars and umami elements of the soy sauce, it develops a dark brown liquid color.
Soy sauce can be the best bet to substitute oyster sauce in your recipe in times of need. It’s inexpensive, and the stores barely ran out of it for sure. One aspect that both condiments share is the meaty and savory umami effect and the brown color that it can give to the dish.
It will only take a simple trick to use soy sauce as a close enough substitute for oyster sauce. Lessen the amount of soy sauce and add brown sugar sparingly to add sweetness. Some add ¼ teaspoons brown sugar for every tablespoon of soy sauce.
Use soy sauce for your marinades, stews, soups, stews, and stir-fries.
For vegans, soy sauce will be a great alternative to the oyster sauce since it’s a plant-based product.
The downside of using soy sauce is that its consistency is not as thick and syrupy as the oyster sauce. It won’t have the same texture as what you expect to have with oyster sauce. Sometimes, chefs add a thickening agent like cornstarch to match up the oyster sauce’s consistency. Soy sauce tastes saltier, and it lacks the sweetness that oyster sauce has.
3. Kecap Manis
Also known as sweet soy sauce, Kecap Manis is a condiment popular in Indonesia. It’s a thick and dark soy sauce that has palm sugar. Unlike soy sauce, Kecap Manis is sweet.
Kecap Manis is the main condiment for many Indonesian dishes such as fried rice and fried noodles. You can use Kecap Manis to salad dressings, scrambled eggs, sandwiches, glazes, soups, barbecue sauces, and grilled corn, chicken, beef, pork, or seafood. You can also use this sweet soy sauce as a dipping sauce.
This Indonesian sweet soy sauce is a good alternative for oyster sauce because it is loaded with sweet, salty, and savory flavors minus the taste of the mollusks.
4. Fish sauce
Here’s another suitable oyster sauce substitute: fish sauce.
Fish sauce is made of months to year-long fermented oily fish and salt. The traditional way of preparing fish sauce is placing anchovy fishes in a barrel with salt and water. It is the salt that helps draw out liquid from the fish. Aside from anchovies, manufacturers often use either krills, shrimps, or mackerel.
The use of fish sauce is abundant in Vietnamese, Thai, and Indonesian dishes. It can be added to braised meats, stir-fries, pasta sauces, soups, yogurt dips, marinades and vinaigrettes
Same with oyster sauce, fish sauce is brown in color (sometimes reddish brown) with a sweet and salty flavor. One thing that stands out in fish sauce is its fishy smell and taste. So, you may want to reduce the amount of fish sauce you are going to use so that the fishy smell won’t overwhelm your dish.
5. Mushroom sauce
Mushroom sauce made from shiitake mushrooms is considered one of the best substitutes for oyster sauce when it comes to giving the rich umami flavor and color. This sauce is alternatively labeled as the “vegetarian’s oyster sauce.”
You can cook your own mushroom sauce at home. You will only need shiitake mushrooms, vegetable oil, garlic, ginger, sesame oil, and soy sauce.
Another way of making the mushroom sauce is dissolving mushroom broth in water. Season it with brown bean sauce and sugar. Give it time to boil before adding in a cornstarch slurry into the mixture. And then, the mixture is stirred until it thickens.
6. Hoisin sauce
Tagged as one of the best alternatives for oyster sauce, hoisin sauce tastes equally sweet and salty, brown in color with a thick consistency (thicker than oyster sauce). In other words, it has a strong umami flavor with a little touch of sweetness.
Hoisin sauce is frequently used in Chinese and Vietnamese dishes, and it contains fermented mashed soybean paste, garlic, vinegar, red chilies, sesame oil, and sweetener.
Try using hoisin sauce if you’re going to prepare any the following: noodles, stir-fries, soups, burger patties, dipping sauces, vinaigrettes, barbecue sauces, marinades, grilled or baked chicken, duck, or pork ribs.
The accidental discovery of oyster sauce has become a central ingredient in many Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai dishes.
Whether you are allergic to oyster sauce, you don’t like the taste and smell of oyster sauce, or you just can’t find any at the grocery store, there are easy and cheap alternatives that you can use. Just bear in mind that no ingredient mimics all the features of oyster sauce.
Oyster sauce can be substituted with other ingredients like soy sauce, Kecap Manis, fish sauce, mushroom sauce, hoisin sauce, or you can make your own at home.
If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, your options are soy sauce, mushroom sauce, hoisin sauce, or sweet soy sauce.
Most importantly, Remember the little differences between each alternative and make the necessary adjustments in your recipe.