Lee Kum Kee’s line of “premium” oyster sauce.
Food

How a kitchen accident gave birth to a beloved sauce

Nov 26, 2018

If it seems like every Chinese household in the world has a bottle of Lee Kum Kee oyster sauce in its pantry, we have a culinary accident to thank for it.

The story goes that Lee Kum-sheung, the founder of Lee Kum Kee, created the seafood-flavored sauce in 1888 while working at a small teahouse in Guangdong province.

Lee Kum-sheung, the founder of Lee Kum Kee.
Lee Kum-sheung, the founder of Lee Kum Kee. / Photo: Lee Kum Kee

He was cooking oysters in the kitchen but was so busy with customers that he left the stove on, according to company lore.

When he smelled a strong scent coming from the kitchen, he rushed back to the stove, fearing the oysters had been overcooked.

What he found was a thick layer of dark brown paste, which would become the base for oyster sauce.

The type of wok that Lee might have used to make oyster sauce, on display at Lee Kum Kee’s headquarters in Hong Kong.
The type of wok that Lee might have used to make oyster sauce, on display at Lee Kum Kee’s headquarters in Hong Kong. / Photo: Chen Xiaomei/SCMP

Nowadays, the sauce is made from a reduction of oyster poaching liquid that is then simmered with seasoning and thickener. Its carefully balanced blend of sweet and salty has made it a popular ingredient in stir-fry.

Sauce boss

Lee Kum Kee now manufactures over 200 types of sauces and has factories in China, Malaysia, and the United States.

North America, with its large immigrant communities, is one of the company’s biggest markets—and Lee Kum Kee jumped into it early. The company began exporting sauces there in the 1920s, when Chinatowns were forming in the United States and Canada.

Lee Kum Kee now has a variety of oyster sauces, including a vegetarian option.
Lee Kum Kee now has a variety of oyster sauces, including a vegetarian option. / Photo: Chen Xiaomei/SCMP

Its headquarters, though, remains in Hong Kong, where the company has been since 1932.

“It’s where we started the journey of expanding to the world,” says Francis Chan, Lee Kum Kee’s chief sales and marketing officer. “That’s why we continue to have our headquarters here.”

In addition to oyster sauce, the company churns out everything from soy sauce for Cantonese-style steamed fish to wasabi-flavored salad dressing.

Lee Kum Kee now manufactures over 200 types of sauces.
Lee Kum Kee now manufactures over 200 types of sauces. / Photo: Chen Xiaomei/SCMP

The company faced some controversy in 2001, when British authorities ordered the recall of five sauces for containing possible carcinogens.

Lee Kum Kee’s chairman later said the company adjusted its formulas to comply with government standards.

Adapted from an original article first published in the South China Morning Post.