This Is How My Mom Got Me to Eat Vegetables as a Kid

I still use this bottled sauce on my broccoli as an adult.

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July 26, 2020

Sometimes eating broccoli can feel more like checking off a chore than satisfying a craving. On weeknights when you just need to get some greens on the table – quick and simple – steaming a frozen bag may seem like the easiest — and least enjoyable — way to eat the vegetable.

It wasn’t until college, when I was often pressed between 100 pages of reading and an essay due the next day, that I took a tip out of my mom’s handbook. To eat broccoli without compromising on flavor or time, I picked up a fresh head – and a bottle of trusty oyster sauce.

Oyster sauce is a condiment common in Cantonese, Vietnamese, Thai, Malay and Khmer cuisine. As you might guess, it’s made by cooking oysters. Traditionally, oysters are slowly simmered in water until the liquid caramelizes into a dark, viscous sauce. But to speed up the process, some commercialized versions are instead made with oyster extracts, plus salt, sugar, corn starch and caramel coloring. The result isn’t fishy; it’s salty (thanks to the brininess of the oysters), a bit sweet and rich with umami.

There are several brands and types of oyster sauce on the market, but, growing up, there was always a bottle of Lee Kum Kee’s Premium Oyster Sauce in my mom’s kitchen. When we shopped, I knew to look for the one with the “boat lady” and “boat boy” – and a pile of freshly caught oysters, not drawn to scale, between them. According to Lee Kum Kee, oyster sauce was accidentally invented in the Guangdong province of China by its founder, Lee Kum Sheung, when he overcooked oyster soup. In 1888, he created Lee Kum Kee to sell the sauce, and the brand has since become a household cooking staple.

In his Drunken Noodles class on the Food Network Kitchen app, Jet Tila has described oyster sauce as an “all-purpose, salty, savory and everything” sauce, often a component of Chinese and Thai noodle dishes, stir fries, broths and more.

While the sauce can be a core cooking ingredient, one of the simplest ways to use it – my go-to way, inspired by a Cantonese dish often served at dim sum restaurants – is to pour it over cooked broccoli. First, I set a frying pan over medium-high heat with a bit of vegetable or canola oil. Once the oil heats up, I drop a sliced clove of garlic into the pan for about 30 seconds before adding broccoli florets or Chinese broccoli (gai lan). Then, a thin layer of water, just to help steam the broccoli a bit, along with a pinch of salt. After a few minutes, the vegetables are cooked through – but not mushy. Once plated, I add a couple taps of straight oyster sauce, just like any other dressing, to the vegetables and remaining liquid. If cooking broccoli, I finish seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. If cooking Chinese broccoli, I finish with a couple drops of sesame oil.

And done! The dish is easy, nourishing and makes broccoli taste, well, amazing. It was a surefire way for my mom to get me to eat vegetables as a kid – and it’s a dish I still crave after to this day.

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