They’re both complex, potent seasonings that are staples of Asian cuisine, with nautical creature namesakes to boot. But that’s about the extent of the commonalities between oyster sauce and fish sauce. Using one instead of the other will have drastic and disastrous effects on the outcome of your recipe. Let’s examine what makes them so different.
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Unlike lobster sauce, which is entirely crustacean free, our two subjects both have foundations that are aquatic in origin. Two basic components are the driving force behind fish sauce: its namesake (typically anchovies) and salt, the latter of which helps the seafood star ferment into a pungent liquid. It takes six months or more to achieve optimal levels of funkiness.
Oyster sauce comes together faster but contains more ingredients. Caramelized oyster juices take center stage, but the addition of sodium (salt, soy sauce or a combo of both), sugar and cornstarch fuse together resulting in a sturdy, savory and sweet product.
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Visually, you’ll immediately notice a disparity. Oyster sauce is dark brown in color and incredibly viscous, like a thick, syrupy barbecue sauce. Fish sauce has a lighter, amber complexion as well as a noticeably thinner density akin to vinegar.
One sniff, and it’s easy to distinguish the two. Fish sauce offers a pungent punch to the nostrils, announcing its presence immediately. Oyster sauce is sweet on the nose with a slightly fermented potency courtesy of soy sauce but is comparatively far more mild when in comes to smell.
Can You Use Them Interchangeably?
Because of the differences in flavor and consistency between fish sauce and oyster sauce its best to avoid swapping one with the other. But if a recipe calls for either condiment and it’s not at your disposal, don’t despair.
If you don’t have oyster sauce on hand, you can not only mimic its flavor, you can keep it vegan while you’re at it. Taste Essence recommends blending mushroom broth, bean sauce, sugar, cornstarch, and water. You can also use more commonplace pantry staples, combining soy sauce, water, sugar and Worcestershire sauce.
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For fish sauce substitutes, The Stone Soup recommends combining soy sauce with either equal parts rice vinegar or lime juice (or try a combo of all three) to recreate that salty, briny, sour flavor profile.
There is one more thing oyster sauce and fish sauce do in common: They both add a tremendous boost of flavor across all manner of dishes both surf to turf.
Here are a few of our favorite recipes that highlight the virtues of each.
Red Boat Fish Sauce, $11.99 on Amazon
Lee Kum Kee Oyster Sauce, $7.75 on Amazon
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Take your chicken to Funkytown with a fish sauce marinade. Brown sugar offers a sweet balance while garlic and white pepper round things out. Get our Easy Thai Grilled Chicken Breasts recipe.
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This ain’t your mama’s potato casserole (it’s actually from Christina Arokiasamy’s “The Malaysian Kitchen” cookbook). Fish sauce and sambal fight for dominance in this spicy side dish that will likely outmatch your main. Get the Malaysian Potato Salad recipe.
If you’ve ever tried to make stir-fry at home and found it noticeably lacking in flavor compared to your favorite takeout, chances are you’re not using oyster sauce. Give it another go with Grace Young’s flavorful approach. Get the Stir-Fried Ginger Beef recipe.
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Here’s a healthy morsel that’s essentially a keto-friendly, Chinese-inspired taco. It’s great as a two-bite appetizer, or prepare a batch and enjoy it as an entree. Get our Ground Chicken Lettuce Wraps recipe.
You won’t have to cajole the kids to eat their veggies if you serve them Pickled Plum’s tasty (and healthy!) bok choy drizzled with oyster sauce and minced garlic. Best of all? It’s ready in 10 minutes or less. Get the Bok Choy with Garlic and Oyster Sauce recipe.
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