My introduction to oysters was in Hong Kong on my 16th birthday. As a teenager you feel “the world is my oyster!” Little did I realize the oyster would become a huge part of my world. I was with my best friend, Raju, at one of our favorite new spots: Sky Lounge, located on the 18th floor of The Sheraton Hotel in Kowloon. Enjoying the spectacular views of Victoria Harbor, Raju called for the wait staff, simultaneously informing me, in her typical nonchalant fashion, that since we were now “adults”, it was time for a taste of sophistication. So, we ordered oysters!
It was the not the best culinary experience I have ever had. Holding the icy cold, large, grey shell in my hand, the maître d’ motioned to swallow the oyster in one go and then slurp down the liquor. It was not appealing, nor was it revolting either. Just a strange way to eat. “Why swallow and not chew to taste…is this really sophisticated?!”, I asked myself. I knew that there must be more to it than meets the palate.
Many of us are unsettled eating new foods, particularly seafood. As a former chef and caterer, I completely empathize. Thankfully, the experience didn’t put me off oysters, I am pleased to add. It was clear that I was a novice. I merely needed to pursue the oyster with an open mind until I discovered the mystery behind its appeal.
Like most seafood I encountered during my formative years as a budding chef, oysters took on a life of their own. Because of its reputation as a “delicacy” it was rare to see oysters except in fine dining restaurants. My ‘pursuit’ would have to be a gradual, patient one. But it paid off over the years, as I consistently experimented with multiple varieties and slowly developed my oyster palate. In a way oysters became emblematic of my love for food – you literally have to crack them open and be willing to explore in order to appreciate.
A Creature with character
Oysters are available in most major markets year round. However, the most flavorful oysters arrive in fall and winter months. Basically think of months ending in “ber”, September, October, November, December. The flavor naturally follows the spawning season which is in the warm summer months.
Oysters are a healthy seafood option for most consumers. An extremely rich source of vitamins D+, B-12, and minerals such as iron, zinc, and magnesium. and high levels of copper which is known for helping to create collagen. This small sized crustacean delivers a large amount of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, while remaining low in calories. The oyster liquor has high levels of vitamin C and is rich in beneficial antioxidants.
Of course, you will need to consume a lot of oysters to receive the small doses of these benefits. The general protocol of service is an appetizer portion of 6 pieces which is around 50 calories. And like everything else we must be careful in the consumption of eating raw, shellfish.
Healthy oysters are generally quite plump with a glossy appearance. Oysters are graded by size from number (#) 00 to 5. The smaller the number (e.g., #00), the larger the meat.
The outer shell is a pearly white-grey color. The inside reminds me of delicate white porcelain. They have 2 shells hinged together held by strong muscles that hold the shell shut. The shells can be extremely sharp, be careful shucking them with an oyster ‘Stabber’ or ‘The Providence’ shucking knife. These tools feature a flat, narrow, straight blade with dull edges and a flat pointed tip. The tip functions to adequately unhinge the tight shell prying the connective muscle at their base. The blade is not usually as sharp as the tip.
The Art of the Shuck
I have a sincere appreciation and gratitude towards those who make a living shucking oysters. This is not easy work.
During a wedding reception that I catered in Woodside, California I designated myself to shucking 300 Malpeque oysters. Call me crazy, but I wanted to ensure they were done correctly, since the oysters would be one of the “stars” of the spread. With 100 guests in attendance, I had little time to spare. The entire process took about two hours.
The reception was held in a private home in their back garden with a swimming pool and a gazebo. It was a balmy evening, the music was enchanting. There I was seated in an open white tent, the wind blowing softly, armed with my tools of two shucking knives, half a dozen white towels, three sets of gloves and buckets of fresh water. Of course, lots of ice on which the freshly shucked oysters would sit.
The key to ensuring a perfectly shucked oyster is ensuring you have the right tools, holding the oyster flat-side up and inserting the knive near the hinge, rather than through the hinge. Bearing in mind that every single oyster I shucked had to be void of any shells, I gradually became more adept. For those of you are daring enough, Molly Watson of TheSpruceEats.com provides an excellent guide on shucking oysters.
I remember cuts and cracks on my fingers and wrists, despite wearing gloves. My apron was covered in grey muck. My body was sore, and my back and shoulders hurt for days after. After shucking 300 oysters, I didn’t really want to see one again for a while. My experience may have been challenging, but the lessons learned, and stories shared over the years with my audience have been gratifying!
In due time my pursuit of the most delicious oysters continued. The real taste discoveries occurred during my travels around the world.
Sense of Taste
For those of you who have yet to venture out and try an oyster, let me do my best to describe the flavor. Or rather, the sensation of the oyster. It’s both the initial sensation in the mouth and the taste finale that make oysters unique.
Oysters may be prepared in numerous ways. However, to truly appreciate the taste of oysters, they must be eaten raw. I know that is off-putting for some, but think “fresh foods” and the exercise becomes easier. If you have sampled sushi, sashimi, raw legumes or even fresh milk, you are well on your way to understanding the incredible flavors that oysters release.
The sensation I refer to is multi-layered: the initial intake of saltiness (oysters have degrees of salinity depending on their aquatic environment), the texture of the morsel and finally the aroma or scent on the palate (what I call the “after-effect”). While my introduction to oysters involved swallowing whole, I highly recommend chewing. I agree with Rowan Jacobsen, that “you’ve got to chew!” Biting the oyster releases the unique essence of each oyster. And trust me, every oyster is unique.
Depending on the origin of the oyster, flavor profiles can vary in terms of brininess, sweetness, minerality, milkiness, and even hints of seaweed or cucumber. Texture plays a large part in the sensatory experience, such as whether the oyster is more or less firm, plump, creamy, or “milky”.
Other Ways to Eat Oysters
OK, so if consuming a raw oyster is more than you can bear, consider the alternatives. There are many other ways to prepare and taste oysters:
- Grilled: this yields a custardy texture in the middle with crispy nuances around the edges.
- Char Broiled: lends a stronger taste when cooked.
- Southern Fried in Buttermilk & Cornmeal (aka "Po Boy"): the crispiness of the batter and the creaminess of the oyster inside are a perfect fried indulgence.
- Tempura Oysters: soft, crunchy, never overdone, dipped in an Asian sauce (hot, sour, sweet, salty) provides umami flavors.
- Stew or Chowder: the taste of the sea does not always come through as the oysters have to be literally in and out to maintain its delicate nature. The oyster liquor is not sufficient to bring out a seafood taste here and recipes generally tend to add canned or bottled clam juice. The cream and the mirepoix are usually prominent.
- Steamed in Wontons: silky, luscious and warm, works well with oyster mushroom combo.
- Sautéed in Tomato Sauce: the oyster here is sautéed quickly just like calamari so the result is not chewy. The sauce provides sweet and tangy flavors.
- Au gratin: cooked on the shell, warm, soft centered yet crunchy due to the topping and herbs.
- Stewed, Pickled or Scrambled with Eggs: I have not yet ventured to taste these.
Oysters are as much about the experience as they are about the taste. They aren’t cheap, depending on where you acquire them. But if you are enjoying in a restaurant expect the often pricey delicacy to be presented on a large bowl of ice together with wedges of lemon and a small serving of a mignonette (finely diced shallots and red wine vinegar) sauce. Typically, oysters are served with a basket of sliced, crispy baguette and butter.
I tend to just squeeze a couple of drops of lemon juice on my oyster to heighten the citrus taste for a fresh effect. I used to add a drop of mignonette in my oyster after having tasted the first one to see if it needs a dash of umami flavor. But if it is perfectly sweet and briny this can be avoided. Over time I have found that my preference is to omit the mignonette and enjoy the pure taste of the oyster liquor from its shell.
The correct silverware presented is a small and narrow cocktail fork with three short, curved tines. The idea is to hold the shell with the fingers of one hand and the fork with the other hand. If the kitchen has not removed the small muscle attached to the meat, you may have to release this with your fork for accessibility.
Next, put the whole meat in your mouth, chew it two or three times and swallow the oyster liquor. Now the magic happens! Savor the freshness and saltiness of the sea, the sweetness and briny blends, the creamy and buttery mouthfeel, the melon and citrus notes, the rich nuances, languid and soft-tasting, plump, firm, and yet springy textures. The explosive sensation is as if the oyster was storing up the best of its world just to be shared with you.
Though the motto is to drink what you enjoy, in my opinion, the wines and champagnes that compliment well with oysters are chablis made from 100% chardonnay grapes, less oak – the minerality shouts for oysters. A crisp bright muscadet. Brut blanc de blancs, proseco and cremants are a great sparkling alternative. Ultra dry Laurent Perrier Brut offers delicate citrus and floral notes. The premium Veuve Clicquot (both dry and sweet labels) tend to harmonize well with oysters, igniting umami synergy.
I personally enjoy Domaine Alice Hartmann’s Brut. A fresh, sweet cremant produced near the Moselle river in southeast Luxembourg. It pairs beautifully with most oysters.
My love for oysters has as much to do with the sheer pleasure I get consuming them, as it is with the journey I took coming to love them. I have found in my career that I gravitate towards things that can at first seem intimidating. Perhaps it’s a way to prove myself. Or it could be my endless craving to discover more about the foods I encounter. In that sense, the oyster is my world. It represents those strange encounters in life, where the only way forward is to experience.
Trust me when I say that oysters are an experience you will never forget. Bon appetite!