The world of oysters

Australians’ love of oysters has flourished in recent times, with demand up by 25% in the past decade alone. For years oysters were the domain of the white tablecloth restaurant where a dozen oysters au naturel headlined the entrées. We take a look at how chefs today are using these salty little bivalves as a blank slate to try out their creativity while bringing briny joy to their customers.

They are topping them with Japanese sauces or cooking them over coals. Add to this the cooked classics of Rockefeller and Kilpatrick, and you’ll find that ornate oysters are finding a new market.

One of the perfect partners for oysters is citrus. Freshly shucked oysters love wedges of lemon or, for a touch of class, half a lemon wrapped in muslin to capture the seeds. In recent years the rise of finger limes has seen the little green jewels from inside these aromatic, native fruit dotted on top of many oysters. More recently, chefs are embracing Japanese ingredients and making their own ponzu sauce from mirin, bonito tuna flakes and locally grown yuzu – or Japanese lemon.

Japanese ingredients and cooking methods are perfect for pimping oysters. Mirin can be added to soy sauce, Japanese rice wine vinegar and dashi to make Tosazu sauce – simply perfect with large Pacific oysters. Japanese mirin – which is like sweet sake – contains loads of umami compounds, making your oysters taste even more delicious. Mirin is popular in oyster shooters where an oyster is placed in a shot glass along with some sake or a little neutral tasting spirit like vodka. Add to this some pickled ginger for tang and wasabi for punch, and you have a nice little snack in a glass to get the party started.

If you like your oysters hot, try a deep-fried tempura oyster. Make a thin batter, dip your oyster meat in, deep fry and you get a crunchy golden oyster with a just-set, creamy interior. Serve with a traditional tempura sauce with grated daikon for a sharp tang. Alternatively, try kaki furai or deep-fried oysters with breadcrumbs. Take shucked oysters, dry with a paper towel, dust in cornflour, dip in beaten egg then dredge in breadcrumbs. Deep fry until golden. Serve with Japanese mayonnaise or aioli. We are also seeing the rise of the charcoal-grilled oyster in which whole, unshucked oysters are being cooked to order over small Japanese grills. The heat pops the lid and the oyster inside is warm and juicy, perfect with a dash of soy sauce.

Then there is the big 21st-century retro oyster comeback which sees 1970s oyster classics hitting menus again. First, there is the carpetbag steak. This is a delicious thick-cut sirloin steak into which a pocket is cut. Into this is stuffed oysters and seasoning – sometimes garlic butter – then grilled to medium to set the oysters. Salty and meaty, they are delicious with a glass of medium-bodied red or even a stout. Next are oysters Rockefeller. Originally from New Orleans and made with spinach, butter and breadcrumbs, they were as ‘green as a greenback dollar bill and as rich as a Rockefeller.’ Then there is the oyster Kilpatrick in which the saltiness and creaminess from the oyster is matched by the fat and smoke from the bacon, balanced by the sweet and sour tang of the Worcestershire sauce. One of the tricks to avoid the oysters cooking too quickly in this dish is to cook them and the sauce together, gently in a pan. This is then spooned into a cleaned and preheated oyster shell and topped with finely sliced prefried bacon. For the raw oyster purist, oysters Kilpatrick are a bridge too far. But, for oyster naysayers they can be the gateway shellfish that brings them across to the beautiful world of oyster enjoyment.

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Written by Richard Cornish

6 December 2020

Food writer and author, senior contributor of Bidfood’s appetiser. magazine