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Fish Sauce, Oyster Sauce, Hoisin Sauce?

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  • Funwithfood May 16, 2004 10:25 AM
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I had a recipe for a marinated pork tenderloin which called for soy sauce, honey, garlic ginger, and Oyster Sauce. I did not have Oyster Sauce but was told that Fish Sauce or Hoisin Sauce could be subtituted.

I opened the Fish Sauce (in the cupboard but never used!) and it reeked so bad I threw it away. {It smelled like the fish emulsion I use on my tomatoes!}

Okay, I am new to all these ingredients. With option 1 & 2 out, I substituted Hoisin. The dish turned out fine, but I can't imagine that Hoisin is an appropriate substitute for either Oyster or Fish Sauces.

Can someone help me understand the nuances in flavor, and uses for Oyster, Fish, and Hoisin Sauces?

Thanks in Advance!!!

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  1. You can familiarize yourself with the ingredients at Asia Society's food glossary. As far as nuances go within a particular category, I'll leave that to others...

    Oyster Sauce -- http://tinyurl.com/3hbvv
    Fish Sauce -- http://tinyurl.com/ytb4g
    Hoi sin Sauce -- http://tinyurl.com/2yqma

    Also check LKK's website -- some recipes and descriptions, but mainly marketing.

    Lee Kum Kee (prepared sauces) -- http://tinyurl.com/3bltt

    2 Replies
    1. re: Joe B.

      Fish sauce is supposed to smell like that! Give it a try - when used as directed, it adds a wonderful dimension to a dish. I often add a little to braised vegetables, rather than salting.

      1. re: judybird

        To this recipe I would also add a little sesame oil and five spice. I use a similar soak for chicken and country ribs on the grill.

    2. You're fish sauce was fine.
      It's simply "fermented"!

      1. The three are really not interchangeable at all. Fish sauce is more of a condiment like soy sauce. It is very salty, but unlike soy, has a strong "stinky fish" aroma. A little goes a long way, so a 1:1 substitution with Hoisin or Oyster would be pretty funky. Oyster sauce is much less salty than soy, the good ones are fairly thick, and not "oystery" at all. More like an asian version of demi-glace. The predominant flavor you notice in the typical chinese stir fry dish is usually oyster sauce (think beef with brocolli). Hoisin is very thick and sweet. I don't like it in many dishes because it has an overpowering flavor. A little brushed on a pancake for moo-shu or peking duck is fine.

        8 Replies
        1. re: sbp

          While tastes may vary on what constitutes good oyster sauce, I'd have to say that I only want the ones that taste "oystery". The first ingredient on the list should be oyster extract in my book. Not water, not starch, not sugar, but oyster. These are less thick than the other brands. I don't have an allegiance to a particular brand, but just checked what I have in the fridge and it's Koon Chun.

          About 15 years ago I visited Zhuhai, near Macao. This is where reportedly the best oyster sauces in China come from. The ones we tried there was not as thick nor as dark in color as the brands I'd tried before. Also, they were less sweet and definitely tasted "oystery".

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            My knowledgable cook friends say there are really 2 oyster sauces, for dipping (expensive) and for cooking (cheap). The are some dishes that cry for the really good stuff to dip. A friend gave us a bottle of a new item...a sauce with no oysters, but very similar taste. We occasionally feed a vegan, and it comes in handy. Think its by Yee Kum Kee.

            1. re: Jim H.

              Corinne Trang ("Essentials of Asian Cuisine") recommends the Lee Kum Kee brand for oyster sauce. For fish sauce, she recommends Double Parrot, Oyster and Tiparos brands (the last being the mildest and best suited for someone unfamiliar with fish sauce). She recommends the Koon Chun brand for hoisin sauce.

              1. re: Jim H.

                Lee Kum Kee makes two varieties of Oyster Sauce-- the expensive one costs about twice as much but is made from real oyster extractives. The cheap one is made from salt, sugar and msg (with some mysterious artificial oyster flavoring). I use the "real" oyster sauce and think it makes a difference in the finished product.

                1. re: Jim H.

                  Lee Kum Kee makes two varieties of Oyster Sauce-- the expensive one costs about twice as much but is made from real oyster extractives. The cheap one is made from salt, sugar and msg (with some mysterious artificial oyster flavoring). I use the "real" oyster sauce and think it makes a difference in the finished product.

                2. re: Melanie Wong

                  I have Koon Chun too. Have tried many other brands, also. I love the flavor, and it is unique, but to my palate, it does not taste like a freshly shucked oyster. Maybe it tastes like an oyster with a little age on it, but I've never had one.

                  1. re: sbp

                    Of course it does not taste like a freshly shucked oyster. It tastes like the intensely smoky and briny dried oysters used in Cantonese cooking.

                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                      Yes -- but in describing to someone who is unfamiliar with the sauce, the fresh oyster is the only frame of reference. Dried oysters are essentially unavailable outside of Chinatown in NY, S.F., etc.

              2. I make a point of never smelling fish sauce and refrigerating it after opening. I hate the smell, but it is a key ingredient in many Thai recipies I like. I've tried cooking without it (when I was out) but it definitely isn't the same!

                The lesson: Use it when called for, but don't smell it.

                4 Replies
                1. re: SN

                  I watched an Asian cooking demonstration and she said that she adds the fish sauce to many dishes as an extra layer and usually at the last leg of the cooking process. She said it is often undeciferable, but adds a dimension to the dish. So, it's obviously a condiment.

                  Hoison on pork sounds good, funwithfood. As my sister-in law says, "Daringly creative." To her, anything without a recipe is daring. You go girl.

                  It is also good on salmon, sparingly. I poach the salmon in the microwave and just brush a little on the top. Great with rice with shelled edamame or asparagus and that Paradise (tropical fruti) tea.

                  1. re: kc girl

                    KC Girl, are you from the KC area? I am!

                    1. re: SN

                      No, but my step-dad was. I heard stories about the area, but that's about all. I've yet to visit there myself. KC is just my name and my piano-playing friend, Jay, started calling me kc girl a few years ago.

                      1. re: kc girl

                        Ah, that's cool. It's not a bad place, but hard to find a reason to visit unless you're like I am and still have family in the area.

                        Darn good barbecue, though.

                2. I know someone who went to a proffesional cooking school and passed this tip on to me form their teacher. Since it usually take quite awhile to use an entire bottle up, buy the smallest bottle you can. The flavor does change with time and can alter the taste of the dish. Also, store it in the refrigerator.

                  1. There are different types of fish sauce. I buy nuoc mam or nam pla, the Vietnamese and Thai versions, which are refined to a dark-colored, transparent liquid. The smell is nothing like the Chinese kind that I once bought. That had visible chunks of decomposing fish floating around in an opaque, tan-colored liquid. When I opened it, I reacted the same way - I immediately threw it away. There was no way I could see putting something that smelled like that in my food. With nuoc mam and nam pla (at least the brands I have bought), when you smell it you can tell that it smells like anchovies, but once it is mixed in with the other flavors in a dish it becomes nearly impossible to discern that it's a fishy taste - it adds a dimension that is hard to pin down, but is essential to a lot of Vietnamese dishes. I am not generally a big fan of anchovies, but I think the fish sauce is the biggest factor in making Vietnamese my favorite cuisine.

                    Link: http://www.montrealfood.com/nuocmam.html