Oyster omelettes are the sort of street food that marks out anybody’s experience in Xiamen and Taiwan but it has a more serious provenance.
Back in 1661, the Dutch navy had launched an offensive operation to take the island of Taiwan. The Chinese general Koxinga attempts to wrest control back and fend off the Dutch.
The Chinese army needing food could not find any rice because the Dutch had hidden supplies. To meet the Chinese army’s digestive needs, Taiwan, being rich with oysters offers up the solution. Coat the oyster in some sweet potato starch and deep fry them. This humble peasant-food mollusc becomes the saviour of the Chinese army and the rest is history.
You do not necessarily need to believe the story is true but the oyster omelette stayed with us and became this feted dish that reminds many of us of traditional Taiwanese street food.
Some of my colleagues think it should be a national dish in Taiwan!
A true oyster omelette comes as a collection of battered oysters spread out on a plate, with some hot chilli dipping sauces or perhaps a fish sauce and a garnish of cilantro (coriander) and some sliced spring onions.
The best texture is that of an omelette with a soft slightly gooey centre encased in a crunchy batter. Its a simple affair the batter – plain and corn flour mixed together with a small amount of egg and almost entirely coating the oyster which is fried until it is crispy. Those edges are the key.
One of the most important ingredients but the one most likely to be contentious is the role of pork lard. Most Chinese would argue that it cannot be a true omelette if pork lard is not used let alone offer up a slightly fatty but truly delicious flavour. It’s the batter that the oyster sits in that probably marks out the good from the bad if not the downright ugly.
It may also be about the oysters themselves. The flavour is subtle but should remind everyone of the sea especially that slightly off-putting briny note but one that is so culturally distinct to the dish.
Each vendor apparently discriminates itself from the other by the type of fish sauce and chilli sauce on offer. Some of that chilli along with signature spices ends up in the batter too. It all means there is plenty of room for variation when it comes to these oyster omelettes. What is critical is not to change too much – old fashioned cooking and tastes are essential if one producer is to be earmarked over the other. It sounds like the myth of the battle is still with us but on the street instead!