533: Oyster Sauce with J. Kenji López-Alt

Matthew Amster-Burton 0:04

I'm Mommy.

Molly 0:05

And I'm Molly.

Matthew Amster-Burton 0:06

And this is spilled milk. This show where we cook something delicious. Eat it all and you can't have it. Today

Molly 0:12

we are talking about oyster sauce.

Matthew Amster-Burton 0:14


Molly 0:15

Nothing says mid March like oyster sauce.

Matthew Amster-Burton 0:18

That's true. Tis tis the season of the shellfish. Yeah.

Molly 0:22

Okay. Well,

Matthew Amster-Burton 0:23

well, I mean, you're supposed to eat oyster sauce in months with an R in them, right? Yeah,

Molly 0:28

that's how it goes. Nailed it. Okay, today's episode was suggested by listener and guest, Kenji Kenji. His last name will be revealed shortly. Join. Oh, wow,

Matthew Amster-Burton 0:40

what a great team.

Molly 0:41

I know. I know. I'll give you guys a hint. You know this guy. And you're going to be very excited to hear

Matthew Amster-Burton 0:47

from this. Okay. I haven't figured it out yet. So so I'm looking forward to being surprising.

Molly 0:52

So Matthew, let's let's hit Memory Lane first. For me. This memory lane is very short. I don't have much of a memory lane of consciously eating things cooked with oyster sauce. Or cooking with oyster sauce or using oyster sauce myself. However, I think I've probably eaten a lot of oyster sauce in my life and not known it.

Matthew Amster-Burton 1:12

Sure. Yeah. Is it? Is it a condiment that you've that you've kept? Like, on hand for cooking? or No? No. All right, um, my.

Molly 1:22

I don't know how I've avoided keeping it on hand because I didn't mean that to sound judgmental. It shows up in so many important weighs in many dishes. Yeah, like

Matthew Amster-Burton 1:33

sometimes as an ingredient and sometimes just as a companion. Yes. It's like, keep on the counter to make you make you feel warm and fuzzy. What about mummy?

Molly 1:41

What's on your oyster sauce memory lane.

Matthew Amster-Burton 1:44

Okay, I've been cooking with this for as long as I can remember, but have never really given it a lot of thought as kind of a standalone player, except in the context of guyline like Chinese Broccoli with oyster sauce at dim sum. That's that's like the main place where where like the oyster sauce sort of not stands on its own because it's a condiment for the broccoli. But were that's like the primary flavor in my experience.

Molly 2:10

And did your family go out for Dim Sum when you were a kid? Yeah, absolutely.

Matthew Amster-Burton 2:13

At Turner everywhere. Fung Chong noodle house in Portland.

Molly 2:18

Do you think you would have eaten something with the description with the description involving oyster sauce? Because, you know, in retrospect, really good quick looking down my my desolate memory lane. I wonder how much of the fact that I don't have a lot of conscious memories of oyster sauce has to do with the fact that I wouldn't eat oysters until I was like 30.

Matthew Amster-Burton 2:41

Yeah, so I feel the same way about oysters. And I think it all would have come down to like whether the word oyster sauce was mentioned, because like, if it was like, I did like broccoli as a kid. And so if it was like broccoli with a tasty brown sauce, I would have been in Yeah, if the word oyster had come up, then maybe you would have been out right opposite broccoli with oyster sauce. So like non Chinese Broccoli also very good. And beef with oyster sauce is a dish that I've had and made a number of times. Okay. And that typically like also has other seasonings, not just oyster sauce. But oyster sauce is like the star of the show. Just like it's the star of this show. It

Molly 3:20

is the star of this show. Move over. Move over host mummy and host Molly oysters.

Matthew Amster-Burton 3:28

Star Mommy, why? I don't even remember like we were I was making jokes about mummies before we started recording. That's why I was hosting mommy in case you needed content.

Molly 3:37

It was only like three minutes ago or something. But in case you forgot, but it feels like it feels like another era. I'm realizing so many things as we talk here. But one thing I'm realizing is that I think that that my early understanding or my early knowledge of oyster sauce. I think I wasn't even sure that it involved oysters, you know? Yeah, I

Matthew Amster-Burton 3:59

think this is calm. You know how like

Molly 4:01

horsey sauce, for instance. Arby's does not involve horses.

Matthew Amster-Burton 4:09

That you know,

Molly 4:10

that I know of. But anyway, I think that it really was not until you know pretty pretty, pretty late here in my ongoing culinary journey that I understood that oyster sauce actually involves oysters.

Matthew Amster-Burton 4:24

Okay, a couple things. First of all, you've you've been riding a horse recently have

Molly 4:28

I started taking riding lessons again, for the first time in 24 years?

Matthew Amster-Burton 4:33

Have you ever stopped off on the way after after your lesson at Arby's for horsey sauce? Yes, kind of theoretically. Be consistent. Not yet, but I've been to Arby's and so long and I think of myself as not liking Arby's, but I bet if we went I would enjoy.

Molly 4:48

Right I could go for the curly fries right now actually. Yeah. Oh, of course. Every

Matthew Amster-Burton 4:53

famous season curly fries. Yes. Okay,

Molly 4:55

well, so Okay, so So now that we've established that there are no horses and horses sauce. But there are oysters in oyster sauce. Let's talk about what oyster sauce actually is.

Matthew Amster-Burton 5:05

I thought of one more memory lane, Can I do one more memory lane before we do that, you know where I would have encountered oyster sauce as a kid is at Chang's Mongolian grill in Portland, which is like Mongolian barbecue place where, you know, you pile your ingredients in a bowl, and then you mix up, mix up your sauces, and oyster sauce would have been one of the sauces that you could laid a lot. There was like a long period during which like, I knew that there were a bunch of sauces and condiments used in Chinese cooking, and even like, had many of them myself before I started to understand like when you would choose one over another and how to combine them. Yeah, because at the Mongolian barbecue place, I would just kind of like throw in everything totally. You

Molly 5:45

were like, This tastes good. And this tastes good. And I like you and I like you and I could go into the whole Oprah you get a car thing here, but I'm going to skip that.

Matthew Amster-Burton 5:53

Yeah, no, every time I went to the Mongolian barbecue place, I got a car. And it became a problem because I had to build this big garage and Jay Leno kept coming over and wanting to drive my car. Yeah, Jerry and Jerry Seinfeld.

Molly 6:05

Once again, we have the most current pop culture references. Jay Leno.

Matthew Amster-Burton 6:11

I made one the other day that I was that I was like, this would have been this joke expired in 1991. And like, should not have ever been heard after. I can't remember what it was. And it's just as well.

Molly 6:24

Okay. Well, if no, if you think of it, like I want to know. Okay, so you let me let me know. Okay, so Matthew, I want to tell everybody about oyster sauce because I found it interesting to learn about oyster sauce, please do. So oyster sauce, in short, is any number of sauces made by cooking oysters and there are like European oyster sauces, which are commonly used in the 1800s in French and English cooking, but we are not going to talk about those. All right. What we are talking about today, is I think what most of the world thinks of when they think of the words oyster sauce, which is a kind of thick kind of ketchup textured, dark brown condiment that is commonly used in cooking in China, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam. Cambodia, I'm sure other other places I'm missing.

Matthew Amster-Burton 7:16

Yeah, you know, there's some like nerdy phrase that people use for catch up like like it's a non newtonian fluid or like, like non Euclidean geometry or something is that it's it's not yet i Sausalito. Yeah,

Molly 7:32

it's a sauce. Oyster. Oyster sauce. Oh my god, I'm moving. Alright, so Matthew, at this point in our discussion of what oyster sauce is we're gonna time travel for a second here. Oh, yeah. Get ready. Is this

Matthew Amster-Burton 7:47

where is this where we have our get our opportunity to once again, like, right away by using time machine one time, say what we would do? Yeah, yeah. Okay, because I know mine, I would go back to 1991. I would make that joke. Nobody would laugh at it even back then. And then I'd slink back to the present if you'd had a slink function on the Time Machine.

Molly 8:06

Well, what I'm going to do is I'm going to go back to the late 1800s instead. And I'm going to go back to the invention of oyster sauce and see if the story the origin story of oyster sauce is true or not because oyster sauce is one of those foods that like supposedly started out as an accident. People love to tell these stories about food, right?

Matthew Amster-Burton 8:27

People love accident. They do they do. They just can't look away.

Molly 8:32

Oyster sauce dates to the late 1800s as legend has it in 1888. This guy named Lee Kum Chung was running his food stall in non chalet which is in the modern day Guangdong Province when he forgot about this pot of oyster soup that he was making. And when he remembered it many hours later, I mean, I don't know how he managed to work in this food stall without noticing the pot of oyster soup. A lot of other things boiling. When he remembered it many hours later, it had reduced to a thick brown paste. He didn't want to waste it, I presume maybe oysters were Adeleke

Matthew Amster-Burton 9:12

then like a popular motto was Don't waste the pace.

Molly 9:16

Don't waste the paste. So he didn't want to waste it. So he decided to sell this brown stuff. And he tasted it beforehand and he found it do taste the deeply savory, you know, you can imagine it how to caramelized quality.

Matthew Amster-Burton 9:33

I'm glad that he decided it tasted before. So yeah,

Molly 9:37

yeah, I mean, I sell a brown paste all the time, but I'm not gonna taste it. No, this guy is a way better person than I am. Anyway, he decided to sell it as a seasoning for rice here in his food stall and it was a huge hit. So he set up his own.

Matthew Amster-Burton 9:53

That reminds me I was gonna make rice to taste with oyster sauce and I forgot Yeah,

Molly 9:57

I brought some crackers into the cloth. Okay, great. To cleanse my palate, he set up his own company, which I think every single listener we have has probably seen on their grocery store shelves because this company is the oyster sauce company. It's called Lee Kum Kee. And it was created by our friend leikam Shang in the late 1800s. He set up this company to sell his sauce to all corners of China. And in the century since it's become one of the largest food companies in the world.

Matthew Amster-Burton 10:29

Oh, I definitely have, I would say at least five leikam key products in my home at this time.

Molly 10:34

Yeah, I was at the grocery store this morning and couldn't believe even just in a grocery store that doesn't have a great variety of, of ingredients for cooking Asian cuisines. They had four different types of sauces made by Lee Kum Kee Nice. So yeah, oyster sauce is where it all began today, they sell something like 200 different sauces. Anyway, so apparently, you know whether or not you believe this accidental discovery of of oyster sauce, the way that oyster sauce was made in the early days was pretty much like that. When they started making it commercially, they would boil oysters in these huge iron basins for half an hour, and then they'd remove the oysters to like return to like a sheet of rattan to dry them out. I don't know what they did with them afterward.

Matthew Amster-Burton 11:28

I assumed they were they were sold as dried oysters which like, you know, if you go to into Chinese supermarket you can find all kinds of dried shellfish, like dried scallops, which are used for making XO sauce. But also also all of these things can be used as ingredients or just snack time.

Molly 11:44

I wonder how much flavor they still have, though after being boiled for half an hour. Now, I would

Matthew Amster-Burton 11:48

say probably some and be like we've talked about before that like in Chinese cuisine, like foods that are pure texture are much more popular than in Western cuisine.

Molly 12:01

At any rate, the water that remained in the basins like this oyster cooking water was then reduced to what Wikipedia describes as a blackish sauce. Wikipedia like

Matthew Amster-Burton 12:12

a like an oyster Demi gloss. Yeah, it sounds like that it's not made this way anymore.

Molly 12:17

It is not made this way anymore. So today, you know what is thought of as true oyster sauce of good quality should be still made by like oyster with oyster extract. So you know the broth that is produced by boiling oysters in water. Apparently, the the broth gets kind of opaque and white, sort of like clam juice that you would buy. That makes sense. And then it's reduced until you get to the desired viscosity. And it caramelizes naturally to a brown color. So in true oyster sauce, apparently, this is again, according to Wikipedia, there shouldn't be other additives. So it would just be that like reduced oyster extract,

Matthew Amster-Burton 12:59

I bet you can still get oyster sauce made this way, like at a you know, a luxury food store in Hong Kong. And I bet it's like bet $50

Molly 13:07

Oh, yeah, I bet it is prohibitively expensive. So today there are you know, as we might guess, a bunch of shortcuts that allow us to get like a similarly flavored sauce more quickly and cheaply. So good ones still use oyster extract, preferably as the first ingredient. But there's also a base made from sugar and salt and thickened with corn starch, some types, and I don't know if these are ones that our guests today would recommend or that you would recommend. But some are they have added flavorings, like soy sauce, or MSG, to give a deeper flavor and color. Sometimes they have caramel color. But you know, in high quality oyster sauce, it'll be naturally dark from the reducing process.

Matthew Amster-Burton 13:53

I mean, this is something that I think about a lot you taught us about, like the original oyster sauce, like the real stuff made of nothing but like oysters and water boiled down until it's like an impossibly savory paste. And like that is in a sense, the real stuff. And yet, like the oyster sauce that that you and I and probably everyone else on earth has have been eating like all all their lives is, is mostly going to be the stuff made with a little bit of oyster extract and a lot of MSG and sugar and care about color. And like, on the one hand that seems like not ideal, but on the other hand, it is tasty and like, like the dishes that we make with it are like designed with that type of sauce in mind,

Molly 14:38

I think. Yeah, I mean, I'm trying to think if there's anything analogous to this in, you know, any other foods that we encounter this same way I mean, yeah, I think there must be like foods where the original ideas far too expensive or difficult and so we've all become accustomed to a modified Yeah, I'm

Matthew Amster-Burton 14:59

gonna ask I'm gonna think of it.

Molly 15:01

Okay, great. Well anyway, kum kee still uses oyster in their oyster sauce. They're just using extracts but that's about the best you can do these days. That's where disgust

Matthew Amster-Burton 15:10

Yeah, and I don't like him he has like, at least three different levels of oyster sauce. Like the like the cheapest one that has the panda on the label. The next one up that has like a like a person in a

Molly 15:24

boat has two people in a boat and oyster sauce, right. And then

Matthew Amster-Burton 15:27

I think there's there's one above that is like comes in a small jar, maybe but I couldn't could be thinking of a different sauce. Well, in any of your guests will know,

Molly 15:35

something that I learned while researching this episode is that like, a lot of oyster sauces are labeled oyster flavored sauce. And that isn't necessarily apparently like a sign that it's that things are not good in there. But you just whatever you do, you need to check the ingredient list and only purchase ones that contain actual extracts or actual oyster extract, preferably as the first ingredient. So anyway, Matthew, this stuff. I mean, we're going to be doing a full on tasting here a blind tasting do I'm excited. Yeah. But how would you just off the top of your head, like describe the flavor that oyster sauce gives to things?

Matthew Amster-Burton 16:16

So that's a really good question. You know, I used to I used to live in in New York for a short time and and really enjoyed like the corner Chinese American restaurant that you would order from near your house near your apartment in New York. Like every place any any neighborhood in New York, like there is going to be one on your street. And typically, there will be dishes made with a sauce that is just called brown sauce. Okay, and I think oyster sauce is key to that brown sauce flavor. And it's got like a flavor element and a textural element because like, you know, like hoisin sauce, it's got a viscosity to it that carries through into the finished dish and the texture of the sauce and the finished dish. And so like if you're using oyster sauce or hoisin sauce, like you don't need to use as much starch to thicken a dish and so that's it has like a different because of viscosity is coming from like probably like pure like like more refined starches than corn starch and sugar. It's gonna it's going to have like a kind of a smoother texture to it. But the flavor itself like I just like it doesn't taste like oysters. It just tastes kind of savory and brown.

Molly 17:24

Yeah, it's interesting. It has a sweetness to it that I hadn't thought about before. So like Okay, so as a kid I loved beef with snow peas or beef with bro Yeah, but there have been oyster sauce in that Do you think maybe

Matthew Amster-Burton 17:38

like I think a beef and snow pieces being like more more lightly sauce than that like to preserve like the color and flavor of the snow peas. But I don't know like what kind of sauce Did it have?

Molly 17:48

It was definitely like a brown, you know, a translucent brown slurry. Yeah,

Matthew Amster-Burton 17:55

I think probably oyster sauce was in there.

Molly 17:57

Great. I'll take that as a yes.

Matthew Amster-Burton 17:59

Even snow piece is like, I'm craving some now. Oh, yeah, we're recording this. We're recording this like right before lunchtime. And like, it practically is my lunchtime at this point. And, like we're gonna be like tasting some small amounts of oyster sauce and eating crackers, apparently. So I'm gonna get real hungry. Like, what was the thing we were talking about the other day? Oh, no, sorry. That wasn't you. That was like I was talking about with my brother.

Molly 18:22

Oh, sorry. I hate it. When you when you mistake me for your brother.

Matthew Amster-Burton 18:27

Like I do. I do two podcasts and sometimes like I don't know which one I'm doing at any given time. Like

Molly 18:33

sometimes I mistake you for my sister that's cool.

Matthew Amster-Burton 19:05

Today, we are thrilled to welcome J Kenji Lopez alt. Kenji is a wildly popular New York Times food columnist and the chief culinary advisor for serious eats. And he's also the author of the acclaimed book, The Food Lab. You may also know him from his YouTube show Ken G's cooking show which has more than a million subscribers. We've got like, a few million subscribers, right? Yeah, I

Molly 19:25

mean, let's not tell Kenji. But yeah, our show is huge.

Matthew Amster-Burton 19:28

He's also written a New York Times best selling children's book called every night, his pizza night and his latest book is The Walk recipes and techniques which just came out on March 8, and is probably already a blockbuster by now.

Molly 19:39

Yes. And I wanted to add a little something to your bio, which is that I love that in all the BIOS I saw of you online that you never failed to mention that you are a parent. And that one of your jobs sometimes even your primary job is is being a parent. Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you to you and also to math. You who has been a stay at home parent as well, for like normalizing the fact that parenting is a real job for all kinds of people of all genders. Oh, yeah.

J. Kenji López-Alt 20:09

I mean, I feel like when you're when you're a parent is like, you know, it's like how vegans want everyone to know they're vegan. Yes. stay at home parents you do. You do want everyone to know that like, you don't just screw around. Oh, yeah,

Matthew Amster-Burton 20:22

luckily my kid is 18 now and doesn't require any more carer intervention on my part, according to them. And so my job here is done team. Wow, Matthew, You

Molly 20:31

have successfully though raised a child I've successfully raised

Matthew Amster-Burton 20:35

and now never need to deal with that ever again for any reason.

Molly 20:39

So getting back to oyster sauce. Yeah. Kenji, what made you think to suggest oyster sauce for today's episode?

J. Kenji López-Alt 20:46

Oh, well, the reason is actually because there has been this kind of like online buzz about this brand of oyster oyster sauce. I apologize. My mouth is numb because I just came short handed. So I'm going to slurp slur some words. There's been this online buzz from people in the know about this brand of oyster sauce called mega Yes, yes. Which Gracie young, amazing Chinese food writer, great person. She has come out saying that mega chef is a great is a great brand of oyster sauce. Better than the leikam key who were the people who supposedly invented oyster sauce. Um, so I thought it'd be interesting to taste them blind because I've tasted them side by side. And I have my own opinions on this. But I thought it'd be interesting to give you guys some blind samples. Okay, so that you can try them and we could see what people think. Yeah, I'm

Matthew Amster-Burton 21:31

excited to do this.

Molly 21:32

I'm interested to hear this about mega chef because when we did a fish sauce episode, we talked a bit about mega chef fish sauce. Yeah, you know, other things. So our listeners cannot see this. But I am holding up a little stack of what looks like containers. You might get takeout salad dressing in Kenji dropped these off for me and for Matthew and they are numbered, we're going to do a blind tasting of oyster sauces here.

J. Kenji López-Alt 21:59

It's actually double blind. Because what I did was I at home, I have I have four containers, also larger containers that I divided oyster sauces into and I labeled them ABCD. And then I had my wife come into the room and label them 1234 and not tell me which one is which number. I'm

Matthew Amster-Burton 22:17

so so proud of myself. I just successfully unraveled one of the two pieces of tape holding them together.

Molly 22:24

No, this is going great. It's just really it's just really noisy.

Matthew Amster-Burton 22:27

Give me a sec. All right. Yeah, step step one, phase one complete. Moving on to sinister phase two.

Molly 22:32

Okay, I'm ready. This is so exciting.

J. Kenji López-Alt 22:36

When we're done with this, I'm going to have to text my wife and ask her to send me the key so that we know

Matthew Amster-Burton 22:42

what she just like standing by just just for this responsibility.

J. Kenji López-Alt 22:46

She knows she's she's she works nine to five. So she's she's on her computer. So I actually I don't even know she'll respond. But we'll hopefully she will.

Matthew Amster-Burton 22:53

Yeah, what if it just remains a mystery.

Molly 22:55

I love that you were so thorough with this. You don't even have access to the key. This is really what we will do for food journalism. Okay, are we beginning with number one? And how are we going to do this tasting?

J. Kenji López-Alt 23:07

Yeah, I mean, I think we can begin with one number one. I don't know. What do you do? Do we do cup oyster sauce? Right, right. Right. Right. Like what warm up your hands and I don't know, I think we just tasted I don't think you have to ask.

Matthew Amster-Burton 23:20

Yeah, I thought I got a spoon. But I didn't tell him I just use my finger and as a palate cleanser. I have I have San Tito's brand tortilla chips. Just so I could choose the loudest food possible. That's also in the loudest bag.

Molly 23:33

I think we should kind of smell first. For sure. Okay, And question number one first.

J. Kenji López-Alt 23:39

Yeah, I'm gonna smell number one first.

Matthew Amster-Burton 23:41

Okay. I like the smell of it.

J. Kenji López-Alt 23:43

It's kind of caramely

Matthew Amster-Burton 23:45

it's Oh, yeah.

Molly 23:46

Pretty straightforward compared Well, I spoiler alert. I imagine you and I both made a recipe from your new book last night. This oyster sauce tastes different from the one I use. Okay,

Matthew Amster-Burton 23:58

interesting. See? Because I this one like tastes to me like what I think of as like supermarket brand oyster sauce. Like not not very much oyster flavor. Yeah, like thick and sweet and caramely

J. Kenji López-Alt 24:11

it has I mean, it does have that like, you know, oyster sauce always has that balance of sweet and salty. Yes. And then like lots of umami like lots of like kind of MSG ish

Molly 24:20

flavor. Okay, what about number two? Yeah, I don't think any of these are going to be bad. Number two has a much it has more of like an oyster funk. Like a cooked oyster funk. Oh, very much so yeah. When you smell it for sure. How about oh, flavor to this one is Oh, yeah. Much more complex. Much more.

Matthew Amster-Burton 24:37

I think it's saltier than the first one like the the salt the salty to sweet balance is more on the salty side. Like I like this one. Much better than number one.

J. Kenji López-Alt 24:46

It has a smell of like when you when you grill oysters, like grilled oyster shell, Brian. Okay,

Matthew Amster-Burton 24:54

I need to like pause for a little palate cleanser.

Molly 24:57

Okay, yeah, I'm gonna eat a cracker.

J. Kenji López-Alt 24:58

I'm drinking some coke. Because while I was getting my dental cleaning your dentist recommended coke. Yeah, I listened to your coke flavors episode, and I realized I haven't had like original Coca Cola in years. I usually get Coke Zero. Yeah, raspberry cokes here from the freestyle machine which I was surprised you didn't? Why don't if you tried it, but I'm surprised you didn't mention it because it's the best flavor.

Molly 25:18

Oh, we tried raspberry coke. It was very jammy. It tasted like raspberry jam to me. Okay, are we going on to number three? This one also has a more oystering cooked oyster kind of smell.

Matthew Amster-Burton 25:31

We're on number three, right? Yeah. Well, Oh, yeah.

Molly 25:35

This one is even saltier. Does it

J. Kenji López-Alt 25:37

seem more viscous to you? Also?

Matthew Amster-Burton 25:39

I think so. Yeah. Like just just based on like tilting the container.

Molly 25:42

This one had a real like Tang it kind of zinged tip of my tongue.

Matthew Amster-Burton 25:47

This is so interesting. I feel like this This confirms like every time we do a tasting of things that you would expect might be indistinguishable and flavored, never turned out to be indistinguishable in flavor.

J. Kenji López-Alt 25:58

Okay, I feel like it has like a little bit more bitter seafood flavor. Like, you're gonna need a clam. It's like sweet at the beginning and then bitter. Yeah, has a little more.

Matthew Amster-Burton 26:06

I feel like they traveled a gradient from like one to two to three. Like they're they're getting like funkier and saltier as we go. Let's see if that trend continues. Oh, whoa, number four smells so different. The trend didn't continue. This one is actually smelling very, very sweet and mild.

Molly 26:22

What is this smell? It's almost like a burnt sugar smell.

Matthew Amster-Burton 26:25

That's what it is. Like this one. This one tastes like more caramel than anything else.

Molly 26:30


J. Kenji López-Alt 26:31

hang on. Oh, that still doesn't taste bad. No, none

Matthew Amster-Burton 26:33

of them are bad by any means. Like we were saying before you came on that like that a lot of the the dishes that like I have very fond memories of like when I lived in New York and like getting at the at the neighborhood Chinese American restaurant are certainly made with like the the cheapest level of leaky oyster sauce and like that stuff is not made with very much oyster but it's not bad at all. Right?

Molly 26:54

My guess is that number two is sort of the the least expensive grocery store product, maybe with the least amount of oyster extract number two, interesting. Sorry, number one, number one, I'm sorry, number one, either. I'm going to guess that. So last night, I used leikam Key premium oyster sauce. That's the one with the boy, the boy on the boat. And I'm guessing that that is either number two or number three, maybe two. And number four, I really don't know what the story is with number four.

Matthew Amster-Burton 27:25

I can I guess yeah, here's my guess of what we tasted just based on what I know about the oyster sauce market, which as a commodities trader is a lot. I think we tasted leikam Key like, like basic panda label one. Lee Kum Kee premium, the Thai MACRA and the mega chef.

J. Kenji López-Alt 27:45

Yeah, I can't remember the Thai brand. But one of these Thai oyster sauce. Yeah. So there's mega chef, the two leikam keys and a Thai. Okay,

Matthew Amster-Burton 27:53

here's my guess I think one and four are both leikam key and that the end that the premium is not that different from the from the non premium, and that two and three are mega chef and at the Thai brand, but I would not have any idea which is which that's my guess. Okay. On the other hand, I'm also not going to be surprised if MACRA is turns out to be super sweet and mild.

Molly 28:17

I feel very certain that number two is Lee Kum Kee premium.

J. Kenji López-Alt 28:22

Interesting. Then number two is Lee compute for you. Okay, okay.

Molly 28:25

Okay, Kenji. You got to find out

Matthew Amster-Burton 28:27

if you if you can't get

J. Kenji López-Alt 28:28

this information. I might have to run downstairs for a second. Can you give me like five seconds to run down? Yeah,

Matthew Amster-Burton 28:33

yeah, absolutely.

Molly 28:35

Okay, Matthew, I am going to be so

Matthew Amster-Burton 28:38

I haven't been any more excited about anything in months.

Molly 28:41

I have no words for what I'm feeling in this moment. Oh my god. I think he's coming back.

Matthew Amster-Burton 28:46

Hopefully as a paper.

Molly 28:47

Oh my god. Here he comes. I can't wait. I'm so excited. I can't wait. Oh, man.

J. Kenji López-Alt 28:58

Okay, so number one was mega. Oh, okay. Oh, wow. Number two was leikam key. Cheap panda. Okay. All right. Number three was leaky premium. Wow. And then number four was the tie.

Matthew Amster-Burton 29:16

So I was as wrong as I could have possibly been.

Molly 29:21

you grip the leak on keys together with you. I feel like you, you usually have a more discerning palate than I do. And I am shocked. I mean, I mixed up which Lee Kum Kee was which but I called them as two and three.

J. Kenji López-Alt 29:35

I think it's also not necessarily a palette but more just that you have an association with leikam key being, I don't know Faker or maybe that mega chefs reputation precedes it and you assume that is going to be the right one so

Matthew Amster-Burton 29:48

what you know candy we have a segment on the show called What have we learned a segment that doesn't really exist?

Molly 29:54

I mean, like, is it a good thing that the leak come key ones are so much more assertively oysters.

J. Kenji López-Alt 30:02

I mean, personally, I think it is I, you know, I've Yeah, I do, too. I do like the leikam key. And so actually, this was this was, you know, I was honestly surprised when I got the bottle of mega chef and I and unblind tasted them myself a couple months ago, because I thought that the computer was actually much more history tasting. But you know, but that was not a blind taste test that but now now that you two have also tasted them like I guess it is more history. what dish did you guys cook from the book?

Matthew Amster-Burton 30:28

We both made the noodles with butter and oyster sauce.

J. Kenji López-Alt 30:31

Okay, yeah, so So noodles with oyster sauce and some kind of like steamed green is just like the simplest sort of low main dish. Yeah, in China, right? Like you boil noodles. And then you put oyster sauce, a little bit of cooking water, maybe some stock and then some greens. And so that's like a real simple way to have a well a delicious bowl of noodles, but also just kind of just taste your oyster sauce, right? In Thailand, like a very common dish would be water spinach or broccoli. Yes. With little bits of crispy pork belly and oyster sauce, stir fried oyster sauce. Also common in China to have like greens with bland streams with oyster sauce. There's a great recipe, if you go to walks of life, they have a really great recipe for blanched Romaine with an oyster sauce, which is like I stumbled upon it because, well, I think I saw it on their Instagram. And they're like, whenever you buy romaine, you get those like three packs of Romaine heads, and then you make like a Caesar salad and you're like, Oh crap, no, I have to eat two more Caesar salads. And they're like when you do that, instead just like cook the romaine and covered an oyster sauce. And the like I exactly had in my pants in my fridge like a bag of Yeah, three pack of Romaine heads with two of them leftover that I didn't know what to do. But when you cook it, it's really good. And it goes great with oyster sauce and it becomes much smaller so you don't have to eat I

Matthew Amster-Burton 31:45

had that dish. That was like the most memorable dish that I had at like a high end dim someplace in Hong Kong a few years ago that like you know, I had like really good versions of dishes that I was familiar with. And then like this, this sort of like like cast iron plate with some like sizzling greens. And as soon as I tasted it and like like the texture like oh, this is lettuce isn't it? Yeah, yeah, it was. It was fantastic. Yeah, hot

J. Kenji López-Alt 32:09

lettuce. It so like in China and a lot of parts of Asia. It's like would you would never have raw right vegetables right? You would always cook them like iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, whatever your greens are you would cook them whereas here it's like it's weird. The concept of eating? Yes is weird. Stir fried

Matthew Amster-Burton 32:25

cucumbers also good.

Molly 32:26

We should do a whole episode on hot lettuce.

Matthew Amster-Burton 32:29

We should do that that episode will be called you you didn't know how hot it could get. No it will call it hot lettuce. I think we should I think we should do a hot lettuce. Because like grilled Romaine is so good to

J. Kenji López-Alt 32:43

huh. Oh, sorry. Other Other oyster sauce dishes so very common in like Chinese American cuisine. So like if you're familiar. Are you familiar with them? Springfield style cashew chicken.

Matthew Amster-Burton 32:52

Oh, I've heard of it. But I have never had

J. Kenji López-Alt 32:55

it. So it comes from Springfield, Missouri. And so it's basically like Southern style fried chicken that served with oyster sauce and fried cashews. And it's a fried it's one of those sort of crispy, saucy Chinese American dishes that predates every other. It's like older than General Tso's. It's older than then like crispy orange beef, orange chicken. Like it's one of the it's the earliest Chinese American crispy, saucy dish, but it's that the software does essentially just kind of doctored up oyster sauce that you drizzle on,

Matthew Amster-Burton 33:24

but uh, why it didn't it didn't penetrate beyond Springfield, Missouri, because it seems like something everyone would enjoy, right?

J. Kenji López-Alt 33:32

I've never been to Springfield, Missouri, but from what I understand it from watching documentaries and reading it hits like everywhere in Springfield. Yeah, I don't know why it hasn't hasn't come elsewhere.

Molly 33:41

Is oyster sauce involved in versions of chicken rice? Like Hainanese? Chicken Rice?

J. Kenji López-Alt 33:47

Yes. It's common to have oyster sauce as a dipping sauce on the side for that? Very often. Yeah.

Molly 33:54

Where does it show up in Thai cooking?

J. Kenji López-Alt 33:56

Okay, so I would say the two the two dishes most familiar to Americans that you would find it is stir fried green. So so generally like water spinach or, or broccoli with the crispy pork and oyster sauce. That's one dish and then also in padpilot. So like ground pork stir fried with oyster sauce, soy sauce and basil. Those would be like the two real classic uses of Thai waste.

Matthew Amster-Burton 34:19

Okay, I was sad. I was wondering if you were gonna throw a vegetarian oyster sauce in as a ringer. I didn't have you. Have you ever? tasted it straight?

J. Kenji López-Alt 34:27

I can't remember the last time I have. Yeah, I'm sure I'm sure I have at some point, but I can't remember the last time I did.

Matthew Amster-Burton 34:32

Okay, so so we tasted these four oyster sauces and like get a easily fell into two categories or like the the sweet, sweet and mild versus versus the funkier and salty or, like now that you know this. Are you going to use this information as the basis for choosing an oyster sauce to use for a particular dish? And if so, how?

J. Kenji López-Alt 34:54

I mean, I tend to always like you know, I don't like having like a zillion I mean I do like having a zillion things in my kitchen. You don't need more than one bottle of oyster sauce in my kitchen? I think. So, I mean, I generally always have the, the the leikam key yam premium at home and I would use that for virtually everything. Yeah, I mean, I can't personally think of a situation where I'd want to use the others. You know, although I guess the Thai oyster sauce does have a kind of distinctly sweeter and more caramelly flavor that maybe would go better if you're really looking for like to recreate that, you know that Thai street food of the or whatever it is from your your restaurant, your favorite restaurant, right, then maybe you would have some Thai oyster sauce on the side, as well, but, but I make those dishes with the leikam key stuff and they taste good to me. Yeah, me too.

Molly 35:38

I'm so surprised by the mega chef. I'm really surprised. I think that I would not even identify it necessarily as oyster sauce. It doesn't taste it doesn't have any oyster flavor to me.

J. Kenji López-Alt 35:50

I'm gonna look at the ingredients, right?

Matthew Amster-Burton 35:51

Yeah, cuz I will often buy the the Thai brand because because like years ago, someone told me that's the best you should get this one. And I didn't like really do any experimentation beyond that. But like leikam key is what I have in my fridge right now. And I feel good about buying that in the future, either the original or the premium? Because I thought they were both the ones with the most flavor.

J. Kenji López-Alt 36:12

Yeah. Hey, yeah. So okay, so looking at Mega ship. So mega ship is also a tide brand. So you know, it's a part of these flavors could also differences could also just be that Yeah, that's true. High oyster sauces tend to be less oyster and more sort of sugary caramely. But if you look at the ingredients of mega chef, it has the shortest ingredient. ingredient list of all of them, I think. Yeah, oyster egg, interesting. water, sugar, salt, salt, cornstarch, and potassium sorbate. Like a preservative. Whereas leikam Key premium sauce is also oyster extract, sugar, water, MSG, right. And then basically everything else is the same salt, cornstarch, flower and caramel

Matthew Amster-Burton 36:51

color. Yeah, so I guess I know, I don't want to say that, like, you know that we are we are like picking on the sauces that are like tuned for Thai cuisine, rather than the ones that are tuned toward the flavors of Chinese cuisine and take one one is better than the other.

Molly 37:04

Personally, I struggle a little bit with the how very oysters I mean, I like oysters but a little bit with how very oyster the leikam key is. So actually, I mean, I think I would be more inclined to enjoy. If a dish is like very oyster sauce forward. I think I'd be more inclined to enjoy it with one of these two Thai oyster sauces, then we come key, but it is interesting to think about because I think I figured that oyster sauce was going to be best or like, most correct somehow, if it were the most oyster one.

Matthew Amster-Burton 37:40

All right, well, you blew our minds, Kenji. Thank you. No, but now like you you've you've like set a standard that you that you could not possibly live up to because I'm expecting like another sauce delivery tomorrow. It's gonna be just as illuminating. I'm

Molly 37:53

actually just kind of wondering when Kenji was going to come like today. And and bring like all the chili, Chris for our next episode. Yeah, we're doing

Matthew Amster-Burton 38:06

alright, Kenji. Anything about oyster sauce that, that you'd like to add that we that we didn't get to? And also tell us about your new book?

J. Kenji López-Alt 38:13

Um, what what actually one useful thing? Yeah, oyster sauce. So I mean, I cook a lot of Japanese food at home, but currently, because we have a new baby in the house who has like severe intestinal issues. Sure. Audrey who's, you know, breastfeeding him is on like a very restricted diet. So we can't have we can't have Corn Protein, wheat protein, milk or dairy. So soy sauce has become like a thing that we can't use at home. The other day I was I was bringing Daikon, which I typically do in dashi with Aaron and soy sauce. And then I was like, oh, shoot, I can't put the soy sauce in here. But I tried using some oyster sauce in place of the mirin and soy sauce, because it has that same kind of, you know, the sweetness of the of the mirin and the savoriness of the soy sauce and actually worked really well. So that would be my one very esoteric. Okay. Yeah, that

Matthew Amster-Burton 39:02

sounds good use of oyster sauce is

J. Kenji López-Alt 39:04

that if you can't have soy protein, and you were braising Daikon, or perhaps even braising other things, oyster sauce is a good substitute.

Matthew Amster-Burton 39:11

Nice, okay. I mean, I do feel like especially like the the less oyster free ones, like could be a thing but like, you know, you can get how you can add a tablespoon of fish sauce to any stew from any cuisine, and it's going to make it better. I feel like that could work with as long as you didn't mind a little sweet.

J. Kenji López-Alt 39:28

Yeah, if you think of like Chinese American food it is like the base flavor of a lot of super common dishes like like beef. Broccoli is made with oyster sauce.

Matthew Amster-Burton 39:37

Yeah, no, we were talking before you got here about how like when I would get Chinese American takeout in New York like often often like It's like such and such with brown sauce. Right. I think that that was that was developed as a euphemism like before people were ready to hear, you know, non Chinese set cost. Yeah, here with oyster sauce. Yeah,

J. Kenji López-Alt 39:55

it'd be some combination of like oyster sauce, wine, Chinese wine, soy sauce, sugar. And then like, you know, some sauteed aromatics, but that's like the flavor. I think that permeates most Chinese American. Especially like I think New York style Chinese Americans

Matthew Amster-Burton 40:09

stuff. All right. Tell us tell us about the walk. The walk

J. Kenji López-Alt 40:13

is my new book. When is this hearing? Is it already out? I guess it's already.

Molly 40:17

It's already out. Oh,

J. Kenji López-Alt 40:18

cool. All right, it's already out. Thank you, everybody who bought it everybody in the world who bought it? First week it came out, I don't have to tell you about it, because you've already read it. But it's a book about cooking in a wok, that is aimed primarily at a English speaking audience that grew up in the West, and so is familiar with all sorts of Asian cuisines, but might not be quite familiar with sort of the techniques that you use in a walk. Because I don't know I think one of the one of the big misconceptions about wok cooking is that in order to cook well, in a walk, you need this, like super high powered Chinese restaurant burner. Right. And I you know, I don't know exactly where that misconception stems, but I think it largely has to do with the same reason that I had the misconception, which is that my idea of what Chinese food is was colored by the fact that I grew up going only to Chinese restaurants, right, I didn't have a home Chinese cook, I went to Chinese restaurants. And I went mostly to Chinese restaurants that were influenced by sort of Cantonese and Hong Kong style cuisine, which often do use really high heat. So dishes like like beef, chopped fun, where you get that like super smoky, walk a flavor, unless you do some, you know, secret tips and techniques and tricks that I that I demonstrate in my book. Unless you do those, you don't get that smoky flavor. But right. You know, there are there are hundreds of millions of people in the world who cook in walks every day, that don't cook in restaurant kitchens, they just cook in their own kitchen. And so you know, the walk, I've had the same walk since I was in college, so 20 something years. It's like by far the most useful and used pan in my kitchen. I use it multiple times a week I've used it like I used to cook for myself in college, I used it to cook when I was single and like had dinner parties. I use it to feed my family now. So it's just a super versatile, inexpensive pan that you have this one pan and a spatula. And you can make this like you can make like hundreds of different dishes. And you know, and it's not just surprises. You can braise you can simmer, you can make noodles, you can make rice. It's just like a super versatile tool.

Molly 42:16

Awesome. Well, congratulations on the books release. Thank you.

Matthew Amster-Burton 42:20

I have a running dad joke about my walk, which is that like, once a week or so, after after cooking something in the walk, I say hey, this seasoning on this walk is starting to get really good. And I've had it for 12 years. Cooking, cooking probably two or three times a week for 12 years. And it's true the seasoning is getting really good now.

J. Kenji López-Alt 42:39

That is a good batch. I should take that one. Yeah, please. Yes,

Matthew Amster-Burton 42:42

you can have it because as you know my my parenting responsibilities are now done. Do you want to hear my favorite dad joke? Yeah. Well, we'll determine that after hearing.

J. Kenji López-Alt 42:51

How do you how do you know when something is a dad joke?

Matthew Amster-Burton 42:55

Yeah, how it's a parent. Ah.

Molly 43:00

I like all right.

Matthew Amster-Burton 43:01

Kenji Lopez, thank you for joining us. I'd spilled milk

J. Kenji López-Alt 43:07

thanks for having me.

Molly 43:12

Well, that was delightful. Yeah,

Matthew Amster-Burton 43:14

I feel like I learned so I mean, I learned a lot whenever kanji comes on the show but like when he when he delivered sauces I learned even more

Molly 43:22

Yeah, let's see if we can get him to deliver more sauces.

Matthew Amster-Burton 43:25

Yeah, let's let's make a goal like you know, you know how like you write down your goals the universe makes them happen. Let's make a goal that like one year from now. Now let's be realistic two years from now. We will have lured Kenji into like his job right now is like YouTube personality best selling author food columnist right. Okay. Two years Yeah. Wait somehow his job will have turned into like delivery person a courier who just who just like delivers just deliver sausage? Yeah. And like somehow like it likes it like so smoothly, has like transition from his current job that he won't even notice the moment when like, it's crossed over into full time career.

Molly 44:06

I think he's gonna be really excited to hear about that. We'll get

Matthew Amster-Burton 44:09

him we'll get him like a like a truck like a like a what colors of truck already?

Molly 44:13

Can you we're gonna get him a fixed gear bike.

Matthew Amster-Burton 44:16

We'll get him a Fixie bike.

Molly 44:17

He's gonna love riding all over town and that guy's pretty

Matthew Amster-Burton 44:20

happy probably already has one. Yeah, that's true. Okay, okay, let's go into segments and let's begin and end with us our segment now but wow okay,

Molly 44:39

well, my now but wow is a book that just came out on February 22. I pre ordered this book like six months ago. Okay. I heard wonderful things about it. From Emma Straub, author and magic books are magic. Anyway, the book is called the swimmers by Julie Otsuka. And it's a novel Matthew, you're gonna think it sounds pretty depressing here when I describe the coffee to you

Matthew Amster-Burton 45:04

question about about the capsule. Oh,

Molly 45:08

okay. Okay, so So here's the gist of it all right, so this is this is the cover copy for the swimmers by Julie Otsuka, the swimmers are unknown to one another except through their private routines. So you know who goes in the slow lane, the medium Lane, the fast lane and the solace each takes in their morning or afternoon laps. But when a crack appears at the bottom of the pool, they are cast out into an unforgiving world without comfort or relief. I you know, I'm going to stop there. So basically this is my question. It's so it sounds like it's going to become some sort of magical thing they don't as far as I understand they don't go out through the the crack in the pool. The pool closes. Okay, that's what I was wondering. Yeah, yeah, I found that confusing when I first read the book, I mean, more

Matthew Amster-Burton 45:54

more like beguiling than confusing because like, I want to know what this means because like, it's because it has multiple possible interpretations, because I'm sort of interpreting it as they have been swimming like non stop 24 hours a day and suddenly have to go back out into the real world. I mean, like God that's like, like a pretty cool magical realism premise. Right?

Molly 46:15

Well, so I the reason that I was drawn to this book, not only because someone whose taste I trust recommended it, but also I know a lot of people who have taken up swimming in cold water. Oh, wow. Do you have friends who've done this as well?

Matthew Amster-Burton 46:31

I took up swimming like right before the pandemic started and have it No, I did go one time during a lull. But and I would like to go back but not not cold water and not warm water either. Like it's got to be like, like the right level of lukewarm.

Molly 46:45

Okay, well, anyway, I have a number of friends who've taken up cold water swimming in the winter. And I have a student who's written quite a bit about swimming in the writing group that I lead. Anyway, I was really interested to see somebody use the theme of swimming in a novel. And especially the idea of like, when the routine that you sort of cling to for normalcy is taken away like what happens. So anyway, the book is just come out. I'm still waiting for my copy. It is called the swimmers by Julie Otsuka.

Matthew Amster-Burton 47:20

I'm excited like I agree that like that. This doesn't sound like the kind of book that I would normally pick up. But I trust your recommendations. And I want to know what what about more about this crack in the pool?

Molly 47:32

Yeah, maybe you don't maybe there'll be like a children's version of this book in which they do go through the crack and they come out on the other side and there's like an ice queen. And there's, there's a fawn. Mm hmm. Yeah. You know, like a Lion, the Witch and the crack in the pool.

Matthew Amster-Burton 47:47

Yes, line, the Witch and the Kraken. Wait, maybe the crack in the pool is a Kraken.

Molly 47:52

Maybe so I think Julie Otsuka is gonna be horrified if she ever hears this. And hopefully she won't

Matthew Amster-Burton 47:57

I mean, except for the part where we were we suggested that people buy her book, which is all the author cares about. So

Molly 48:03

anyway, thank you for listening to the show. Thank you Kenji Lopez Alt for being our guest today.

Matthew Amster-Burton 48:11

Thank you Abby circuit tele for being our producer and and muddling through the the massive interview and non interview segments that we gave her this week.

Molly 48:21

If you want to chat with other spilled milk listeners, you can on our subreddit, it is reddit.com/are/everything spilled milk.

Matthew Amster-Burton 48:30

And until next time, thank you for listening to spilled milk. The show that that went into the crack that opened up in your in your ear, which is your ear hole, and,

Molly 48:42

and, and we got reduced and came out as as oyster sauce from your other ear.

Matthew Amster-Burton 48:48

Yeah, you've probably been wondering why why a very savory paste has been coming out of one of your ears. And now Now we've got the explanation for you. You're welcome. Remember don't waste the waste the page but do taste the paste. I'm Matthew Amster-Burton.

Molly 49:03

I'm Molly Weissenberg.

Well, I'm Molly

Matthew Amster-Burton 49:14

cuz it it seems like the mummy Oh, sorry. I was gonna continue talking about mommy's

Molly 49:20

I, oops, I need to silence my phone.