“In the Teochew dialect, ‘lok’ refers to a local cooking technique in which food is pan-fried in a circular wok using a spatula. The most famous dish associated with it is oyster pancake without question. Other types of pancake use luffa, turnip, Bombay duck fish and sweet potato. I can easily name 10 varieties,” says Lam Chun Yung, the head chef at Michelin Plate Restaurant Pak Loh Chiu Chow Restaurant.
There’s little Lam doesn’t know about Teochew cuisine, having spent 30 years working at eateries like City Chiu Chow Restaurant, Chiuchow Garden Restaurant and Come-Into Chiuchow Restaurant. At Pak Loh, oyster pancake is a crowd pleaser, with roughly 20 plates ordered every day.
“Three-quarters of all diners would order it,” Lam said. He uses 10 catties (6kg) of mud oysters every day. The pancake could be sold out by 9pm on a good day. “Freshness is a must for baby oysters. They can’t be stored overnight.”
Like anyone coming from a typical Teochew family, the chef incorporates fish, baby oyster and all kinds of seafood in his daily diet. “I’m partial towards oyster pancakes,” he says.
Picking Baby Oysters
While baby oysters are on the market all year long, autumn and winter are their peak seasons. How should we clean the baby oysters after taking them home? “Many people marinate them in salt and cornstarch. It’s quicker, but it also draws out all the flavour from the oysters, which makes the pancake taste not as nice. In fact, soaking the oysters in water and rubbing them lightly will do. The flavour and texture of the oysters are best preserved this way,” Lam says.
“The baby oysters become fattier after Mid-Autumn Festival. There’re also less cracked shells which makes them easier to clean. Summer oysters have weaker flavour and texture. They are easier to break apart,” he adds. Different from choosing fresh fish, you should look for a bit of slime among the baby oysters during shopping.
“Baby oysters can be divided into water oyster (pictured, right) and mud oyster (pictured, left). The former is larger and contains more liquid, but it’s more fragile as well. Mud oyster is smaller but more malleable and has a stronger flavour. It takes more preparation work but it doesn’t break as easily when it is fried, and it gives the pancake a nicer aroma. Water oyster is suitable for making congee, mud oyster for pancake. We should pay attention and use them on different occasions.”
What Makes A Good Oyster Pancake
Teochew oyster pancake is a cousin of Taiwanese oyster omelette known as or jian. They look quite alike, but the tastes and cooking methods are far from similar.
“The proportion of batter and egg varies in the two dishes. There’s only sweet potato starch and one chicken egg in Teochew oyster pancake. The ingredients are mixed and fried upon order. The mixture is never prepared in advance. In terms of flavour, oyster pancake is made by pan-frying. Dry and crispy with a bit of chew is the golden standard for a good pancake. It’s served only with Teochew fish sauce to highlight the umami of oyster. Or jian is cooked with more oil. The condiment includes sweet bean sauce and chilli sauce, which gives the omelette bolder tastes,” Lam explains.
Other than oyster pancake and oyster congee, the baby oysters are also served stir-fried and deep-fried with peppered salt. These are also very traditional Teochew dishes. The restaurants that make them are few and far between. For those who plan to try their hand at homemade oyster pancake, Lam stresses the importance of the heat.
“A flat pan is easier for home cooks because the pancake wouldn’t stick, but the downside is the lack of wok hei. You have to watch the fire closely. The pancake could burn if it’s too strong; if the heat is too weak, the pancake would stick. The secret is to wait for a moment after the wok is greased and fully heated. Add the ingredients when the temperature of the oil drops a little bit,” he says.
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190g baby oysters
76g potato starch
1 chicken egg
1 duck egg
1 stalk spring onion
1 sprig coriander
White pepper powder, fish sauce and chicken sauce to taste
1. Rinse the baby oysters. Put them in a strainer and reserve.
2. Finely chop the spring onion and coriander.
3. Mix the baby oysters, fish sauce, chicken sauce, white pepper powder, spring onion and coriander evenly.
4. Add potato starch and combine.
5. Heat a greased pan and wait for a moment. Pour in the batter and shape it into a flat pancake.
6. When the pancake is 70% to 80% cooked, beat the eggs together and pour the mixture on the outer rim of the pancake.
7. Keep frying the pancake until it is fully cooked.