How oyster pancakes helped the Chinese win a war

Jan 20, 2021

Oyster pancakes are a street food staple in Taiwan and Xiamen. Legend has it that the dish originated in the throes of battle.

The year is 1661. A Chinese general named Koxinga is sent to Taiwan to fend off the Dutch, who have taken over the island.

In an effort to limit the food supply, the Dutch hid rice from the Chinese army. Desperate for food, Koxinga finds oysters on the beach, coats them in sweet potato starch, and deep-fries them for his men. The army is saved from hunger and later wins the war against the Dutch.

A portrait of Koxinga in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
A portrait of Koxinga in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. / Photo: National Palace Museum

It’s a fanciful origin story, one that may be more myth than reality, but one thing is without a doubt: go to Taiwan and nearby Xiamen at any time of the year, and you’ll find street stalls selling oyster pancakes around the clock, from early in the morning till late in the evening.

A coastal city in southeastern China, Xiamen lies just across a narrow strait from Taiwan. It has a maritime climate, which means it enjoys mild weather year round. Seafood is king, and oyster pancakes—also called oyster omelets—are a local specialty, usually served curbside on stools.

(Read more: In Wuhan, finding solace in a bowl of hot dry noodles)

“Basically, whenever there are oysters, we’ll eat them,” says Wang Xishan, owner of Lianhuan Hailijian, arguably the city’s most famous oyster pancake shop. “It doesn’t matter what time of year it is.”

What is an oyster pancake?

Every family has its own take on the dish, but the basic recipe usually entails oysters stir-fried with a batter made from sweet potato and eggs. Garlic shoots and other accoutrements might be thrown in as well. It’s a hearty combination.

“A plate of oyster pancakes, a bowl of rice, soup, and you’re full.”

Wang Xishan, owner of Lianhuan Hailijian

“A plate of oyster pancakes, a bowl of rice, soup, and you’re full,” Wang says.

(Read more: How Chinese people made bagels 400 years ago)

Locals love to pair the dish with sweet chili sauce. Wang says people in Xiamen prefer milder flavors because of the climate. The average annual high is a balmy 78 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius).

“People here don’t like spicy food,” Wang says, “or food that’s too spicy or too mild. We like it just right.”

Oyster pancakes are often served with sweet chili sauce on the side.
Oyster pancakes are often served with sweet chili sauce on the side. / Photo: Guo Yong

The ideal pancake, he says, is fried with the oyster pieces and batter spread out, making the final dish more of an omelet than a pancake. Wang says cooking it this way allows the oysters to cook thoroughly and the flavors to permeate throughout.

Why street food might soon be a thing of the past in Xiamen

Locals like to call oysters the “milk of the ocean” because of their high calcium content. Quality oysters are key to making a good pancake, but Wang says they’re increasingly harder to find in developed Xiamen.

The best kinds, he says, grow further away from the water, on rocks, while ones grown in a mix of salt and freshwater are of poorer quality.

But in recent decades, the waters around Xiamen have been filled with land to spur economic development, destroying many oyster habitats.

Much of modern Xiamen is built on reclaimed land.
Much of modern Xiamen is built on reclaimed land. / Photo: Shutterstock

Economic development has also led to government health campaigns that have moved many street food vendors indoors.

“Back then, all I had was a push cart,” Wang recalls of his early days selling oyster pancakes on the street. “I would push it out and set up three stools on the side for people to sit and eat.”

Over time, Wang made enough to open up his own storefront. He didn’t need to push a cart on the streets anymore. But even that didn’t last long. Shortly after, the building was torn down to make way for high-rises.

The street food industry is tough. Stalls are mostly run by the older generation, and few younger people are willing to take up the business. Wang is holding out as long as he can.

“Xiamen snacks will soon disappear,” he says. “I also don’t want to do it. I feel really tired. But I have no choice. Oyster pancakes have helped me come this far, so I’m already satisfied.”

Street food

Credit

Producer: Tiffany Ip

Videographer: Guo Yong

Editor: Joel Roche

Mastering: Victor Peña