Oyster sauce is a brilliantly conceived ingredient that, more often than not, is poorly produced. Traditionally made by simmering oysters in water to extract their deep umami flavors, today all but the most expensive or homemade recipes of oyster sauce contain shortcuts devised to create a similar flavor and effect more cheaply. Sugar, cornstarch, and MSG are making up for quality or the amount of actual oyster product in the sauce. At the very least, look for brands in which these three are as far down the ingredients list as possible. Or maybe you can find the good stuff, pregnant with the distilled essence of the ocean’s nooks and crannies.
Oyster sauce with meat and garlic, and usually something green like broccoli or snow peas, is a classic and elegantly simple Chinese dish. It’s most often made with beef, but can be made with lamb, wild game, and non-red meats like chicken or bacon.
Cut the meat into chunks or dominos and brown them in the oil with the heat on low/medium, stirring as necessary. When the meat is browned, toss in the prepped greens—florets, pods, cabbage, asparagus, whatever you got. Carrots work too. After adding the veggies, pour 1/4 to 1/2 cup of sherry or other white wine or water into the pan to deglaze it, and stir around the meat and veggies along with the fond scraped from the bottom.
Put a lid on the pan to steam the greens. Let them steam just a minute or two, then add minced garlic and lots of black pepper. Stir it around, and finally add the oyster sauce—about 2 or 3 tablespoons per pound of meat. At this time you can also add fresh basil leaves and some kind of chile or hot sauce, if desired. There should still be a shallow, rapidly evaporating puddle of liquid in the pan. If not, add another heavy splash of wine or water. Stir again, making sure the oyster sauce is evenly dissolved and everything is coated with the sauce, and put the lid back on the pan and turn off the heat. Let it rest for five minutes before serving, with rice.