Find out everything you need to know about oyster sauce substitutes! Whether you’re vegetarian, vegan, have allergies to shellfish or just CAN’T get hold of any, we’ve got you covered. Find the most popular options, how you can DIY your own and our family’s favorite recipes!
When it comes to cooking Chinese and Vietnamese food, oyster sauce is one of those ingredients that you just NEED to have in your pantry. Grandma uses it for almost every weeknight meal and it works perfectly for braising, stir fries or as a marinade.
But I get that sometimes, it just isn’t an option. That’s why I’ll take you on a comprehensive journey on how you can use any oyster sauce substitutes to make your next meal dee-licious!
Table of contents
- What Is Oyster Sauce?
- Why Substitute?
- Recipes To Use It In
- Want More Home Cooked Recipes?
- Join The Family!
What Is Oyster Sauce?
This ever popular choice [pronounced ‘ho yuw’ (蠔油) in Cantonese] is something Grandma uses regularly, especially for our homemade dishes. It’s a dark caramel-like brown and adds the same color and gloss to any dish it’s cooked in.
FUN FACT: The story of its origin is that in 1888, a shopowner named Lee Kum Sheung who sold cooked oysters and tea for a living had ACCIDENTALLY left his oysters to simmer for too long.
What was left was this wonderful liquid that had transformed from clear to brown. He capitalized on this new discovery and began selling the liquid gold in bottles, which began the birth of the brand Lee Kum Kee!
It makes sense for ho yuw to actually have oysters in it. But does it really?
I went ahead and did a little investigation for you.
At the back of the bottle, you’ll find the list of what goes in it. Common ingredients include oyster extracts, sugar, salt, water, flavor enhancers and a thickening agent. This actually answers the age-old question ‘Does oyster sauce really contain oysters?’
The simple answer, according to the labels, is: Yes.
Premium VS Regular
My local supermarket stocks both the premium and regular bottles from Lee Kum Kee. When looking at the ‘Ingredients’ label of the two, you’ll quickly notice the difference in oyster content.
A premium version will have a higher percentage of oyster extracts compared to the regular one (higher by 29%).
Grandma always opts for the premium version for better flavor, even if it’s usually more expensive!
How It’s Made
First, you start with oysters. They go through a long process of gentle simmering in their poaching juices until the liquid is reduced significantly.
It’s then seasoned to taste and thickeners like starch are added to get that signature smooth and thickened texture.
Without being cooked, you’ll notice a combination of sweet and salty flavors with a mild funky smell, reminiscent of both soy and barbecue sauces mixed together.
When cooked, it gives the ingredients an incredible mild savoriness that is unmatched by any other condiment. There’s a ton of umami that works its way into the food!
There are numerous reasons as to why people can’t (or choose not to) have the sauce. Here, I’ve covered the more common ones:
- Diet. Like Mum, there are many who enjoy a vegetarian or vegan diet. If you’re a vegetarian, you’ll be going meatless and the shellfish just won’t cut it. Vegans are in a similar boat as they will not only have no meat in their diet, but any animal product as well (e.g. eggs or dairy).
- Allergies. It’s not uncommon to have an allergy to shellfish. Whether its anaphylactic or minor, anybody in this category should definitely opt for oyster-free sauces for their safety.
- Availability. I’ve heard of some people having to travel for HOURS just to get to their nearest Asian grocery store! If online just isn’t an option, then of course you’ll need to find another way to get delicious flavor into your food.
Regardless of what the reason is, we’ve got your back! You’ll find something to suit your culinary needs in our suggestions below.
Here’s the long-awaited list! All of these options vary in taste and texture, which means it’s important to adjust everything to preference.
There will be a few with a much closer resemblance to the original, while others can be used when in a pinch.
Sauces With A Similar Thickness
One of the key features of ho yuw is that it’s thick. Even with a substitute, sometimes recipes just work better with that texture. So here are our suggestions that tick the box:
Black Bean Paste or Mushroom Sauce
When I asked Mum to drop by her favorite vegetarian supplies shop and ask the shopkeepers for their expert advice on a good quality oyster sauce substitute, she came home with two bottles: black bean paste and mushroom sauce.
You’ll find that both are thick with a deep saltiness that will give your dishes incredible flavor.
They’re more on the syrupy side like dark soy, but definitely don’t run as thinly as light soy.
Vegetarian Stir Fry Sauce
Lee Kum Kee’s vegetarian stir fry sauce is one that Mum uses whenever she needs an oyster sauce substitute. The consistency is similar to the original (albeit slightly runnier) and the flavors are sweeter, but it’s a fantastic option that our family regularly chooses.
Hoisin is known for its sharp salty and sweet flavors, which can be used in moderation. We love it in Hoisin Peanut Sauce (Tương Chấm Gỏi Cuốn) for the perfect balance for our Gỏi Cuốn (Vietnamese Rice Paper Rolls).
It’s also great to use as a dip and for enhancing the essence of savory dishes because the taste is quite potent.
I would suggest using a little bit at a time and diluting its sharpness with a liquid like water or stock.
Soy and Hoisin combo
You can combine equal parts of light soy and hoisin for a similar resemblence to the real deal. It might not be as mellow, but will add sweetness and savoriness to your food.
When You Can’t Get The Thicker Sauces But Still Want Flavor
I get it. Maybe you live hours away rom your nearest Asian grocery or maybe your local supermarket just doesn’t stock what you need. I’ve got you covered!
These substitutes are a way to get umami to your dishes when you can’t get it from anything else.
Light soy is a must-have in a Chinese pantry, but you’ll find that it’s a fair bit saltier than ho yuw. It’s perfect for Steamed Oysters with Ginger and Shallots or Steamed Pork Belly with Salted Radish, but I would use it sparingly in dishes that require oyster sauce substitutes.
My suggestion is to try to balance the flavors out using a sweetener like sugar. And to get a thicker consistency, combine it with potato or corn starch.
Our family has used many brands in the past, including Lee Kum Kee, Pearl River Bridge and Kikkoman.
Fish sauce is a highly salt-concentrated option that is commonly used in Southeast Asian cuisines like Thịt Kho (Vietnamese Braised Pork Belly and Eggs in Coconut Water) or Tôm Rim (Vietnamese Caramelized Shrimp).
It inherently has a fishy smell to it, which, as for as substitutes go, it’s something to opt for when there’s nothing else available. And because of its flavor profile, you’ll need to add a fair amount of sugar to balance the taste.
Popular brands include Squid Brand, Son Fish Sauce, Red Boat Fish Sauce, Viet Huong (3 Crabs) and Tiparos.
Over at Chinese Cooking Demystified, their comprehensive YouTube video covers all the ins and outs of how to make your OWN! You will need to set aside a few hours in the day to make it, but anything homemade is always a treat.
For a vegan alternative, Souped Up Recipes has a video that teaches you how to make it using shiitake mushrooms.
Recipes To Use It In
Whether you’re using oyster sauce substitutes or the real deal, there are so many ways to cook with it.
This is our family’s favorite way to cook, and you’ll notice all the dishes have a common look to them: glossy, earthy brown with tenderly softened ingredients.
Not only is this from the slow braising technique, but the flavors infuse deeply into the ingredients. Using any other oyster sauce substitutes can produce a similar flavor with some seasoning alterations.
When you want savoriness and classic Asian flavors for a stir fry, our oyster sauce substitutes will work wonderfully. Make sure it’s by your side and ready to go before you start cooking so the other ingredeints don’t overcook in the wok!
Infuse your food with a gorgeous savory essence using any oyster sauce substitutes. Pro Tip: Marinate overnight for maximum flavor!
These recipes might not need much of any of the oyster sauce substitutes, but they’ll definitely go a long way with it!
It’s normally used in marinades or cooked with the ingredients. If you’re after a dip alternative, try hoisin or light soy.
Our family uses it very regularly, so we just have it out in in the pantry with the lid twisted on tightly. But it is also suggested to keep it refrigerated after opening, so choose whichever method suits you!
This post was originally published on 16/03/21 and updated with new recipe suggestions in May 2023.