Oyster sauce: the accident that launched a food empire

Oyster sauce: the accident that launched a food empire

by Great British Chefs 31 January 2019

When Lee Kum Sheung forgot about a pot of oysters simmering on the hob, he inadvertently created oyster sauce and launched one of the world’s largest food companies. Find out more about the amazing story behind this delicious condiment.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews as well as access to some of Britain’s greatest chefs. Our posts cover everything we are excited about from the latest openings and hottest food trends to brilliant new producers and exclusive chef interviews.

Consider this – many of the most mundane things we eat today, only came about by complete accident. Bread, as a most humble example, was flat for thousands of years until the accidental discovery that you could leave dough in the sun and it would expand. Cornflakes, Worcestershire sauce, even beer – all things that we just happened upon without a clue of how unremarkable they would become in our daily lives.

Oyster sauce is another such accident – one that has had a profound effect on Chinese cuisine. It's common to think that oyster sauce has a history that matches soy sauce, such is its important to Chinese cooking, but whilst the origins of soy sauce go way back to China's Western Han dynasty over 2,000 years ago, oyster sauce is a relatively recent invention.

In 1888, Lee Kum Sheung was busy running his food stall in Nanshui – a neighbourhood to the south of Zhuhai in modern day Guangdong province. As usual, he set a big pot of oyster soup on the stovetop and left it simmering gently, ready to feed his lunchtime customers. What it was that distracted him from his stove we will never know, but he promptly forgot about his oysters. When he discovered them many hours later, still simmering away on the hob, they had reduced to a thick brown paste – certainly not the clear soup that his customers were expecting.

Lee Kum Kee now owns its own oyster farm, which produces delicious oysters ready for sauce making
Visit the Lee Kum Kee museum in the Xinhui district of Guangdong, and you can see the original bowl Lee Kum Sheung would have used for his oyster sauce

This story could have ended with Lee throwing his brown goop in the bin, but instead – loathe to waste the oysters – he tasted it. It sunk into deeply savoury and umami flavours, with a caramelised quality that provided balance. The sauce contained the essence of oyster without the raw freshness of the original – and it was delicious. Lee decided to sell it to his customers as rice seasoning, and the sauce was a smash hit. Whether through fluke or fate, or perhaps both, Lee had a business on his hands. He set up his own company – Lee Kum Kee – to sell his newly invented oyster seasoning to all corners of China.

Lee Kum Kee, of course, has grown over the course of a century to become one of the largest food companies in the world. The business today sells over 200 different sauces and condiments, from light and dark soy sauce to hoisin sauce, char siu sauce, XO sauce and more, but oyster sauce undoubtedly remains the champion of its line-up. There are plenty of brands making oyster sauce these days, but Lee Kum Kee’s premium oyster sauce is still the bottle of choice for anyone in the food industry – after all, it’s the only one that use Lee Kum Sheung’s original recipe from 1888.

On it's own, oyster sauce has an incredible rich, slightly sweet and smokey flavour – remarkably, there's no hint of fish or seafood. Oyster sauce still pairs wonderfully with boiled white rice, just as it did back in 1888, but that rich umami flavour also makes oyster sauce incredibly versatile. You can use it to season soups and stocks – it makes a brilliant replacement for a beef stock cube – and it's an easy way to add extra bite to stir-fried greens too. Whisk oyster sauce with sesame oil and a touch of rice vinegar and you have an easy salad dressing. Or you can use it as a condiment, and drizzle a little bit over your food just before you eat.

However you use it, oyster sauce expertly manages to draw out and enhance the natural savoury flavours in food, without overpowering your meal with salt. If you're looking for some more inspiration, Shu Han Lee’s delicious stir-fried pork with Thai basil and chilli oil is classic example of Chinese home cooking – the pork is fried until crispy then caramelised with dark soy and oyster sauce, served over fragrant jasmine rice. Chef Michael Bremner uses the savoury sauce in a different way, basting it over a beautiful piece of brill to complement the natural meaty flavour of the flatfish.

The key with something so powerful is to use it sparingly – oyster sauce is capable of overpowering almost anything if you use it with a heavy hand. Beyond that though, why not experiment and try using it in all sorts of things? You never know, you might stumble across something special.