Is Oyster Sauce Vegan? Overview, Ethics, and Alternatives

is oyster sauce vegan a shell in background with cup

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Oyster sauce is made using—you guessed it—oysters. That means the sauce, which is commonly used in Chinese cooking, is not suitable for most vegan diets.

This savory condiment is known for having the perfect balance of sweet and salty with a base of oyster extract, sugar, salt, and sometimes thickened with cornstarch or wheat flour. Other ingredients, such as MSG and caramel color, can make an appearance on the label as well.

Why Most Oyster Sauce Is Not Vegan

Working on oysters at an oyster farm
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Oyster sauce is made by simmering raw oyster juices until they have caramelized into a rich, salty sauce with a hint of sweetness. To add a supplementary depth of flavor, manufacturers may incorporate extra salt, MSG, or sugar to enhance the sauce, thicken it with cornstarch, or add caramel color to deepen the sauce’s natural dark brown hue.

According to Lee Kum Kee, the company that first made oyster sauce famous, the brand’s founder accidentally invented oyster sauce in Nanshui, Zhuhai, China back in 1888.

Why Some Vegans Eat Oysters

The case for eating oysters among vegans is one of the age-old dilemmas that cause controversy among the plant-based community. Along with mussels and scallops, oysters are part of the bivalve family.

While bivalves have no complex central nervous system or brain, the question of whether or not they feel pain is a matter of scientific debate, so some vegans choose to eat them. Others believe that since oysters have evolved stress response mechanisms and are living creatures, they are not suitable for a vegan diet.

Products to Avoid That Include Oyster Sauce

Adding oyster sauce to cauliflower stir fry
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Oyster sauce is commonly found in stir-fries, noodles, and other Chinese-style dishes, but it’s also used to marinate and coat meats and vegetables.

Although oyster sauce is primarily found in Chinese food restaurants, it is also found in Thai, Vietnamese, and other cuisines from Asia.

Vegan Alternatives of Oyster Sauce

Asian cuisine - oyster sauce in the bowl
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Although traditional oyster sauce is not vegan, some companies produce vegan versions made with organic, plant-based ingredients. If vegan-style oyster sauce isn’t available to you, alternatives like coconut aminos, hoisin sauce, and teriyaki sauce may do in a pinch.

Mushroom Vegan Oyster Sauce

The most common ingredients used to substitute oysters in vegan varieties of “oyster” sauce are mushrooms, since they provide a similar rich, umami taste.

Be aware that these products will still likely contain sugar, which some vegans may not consider to be part of a vegan diet if it can not be determined whether or not the bone char method is used. Since organic sugar can’t use bone char, a good way to avoid this dilemma is to look for organic varieties of vegan sauce or simply opt for sugar-free versions.

Coconut Aminos

Although it will likely be saltier and thinner than oyster sauce, coconut aminos can have a similar taste, especially when mixed with a bit of organic sugar. 

Hoisin Sauce

Another classic condiment used in Chinese cuisine, hoisin sauce is sweet and tangy with a quality reminiscent of barbeque sauce.

Hoisin uses vinegar, chile paste, and garlic, as well as sugar, so be sure to pick an organic variety to ensure that it doesn’t use bone char. 

Teriyaki Sauce

Although it will likely be much sweeter than oyster sauce, teriyaki has a closer consistency than other alternatives.

Like hoisin sauce, teriyaki works well in stir-fries and marinades. Vegans who are concerned about bone char should look for organic versions. 

Frequently Asked Questions
  • How to store oyster sauce

    If it’s unopened, oyster sauce can be stored in the pantry. Once it is opened, however, it must be refrigerated and kept in a closed lid jar or bottle. Always look for specific storing instructions on the bottle, as some formulas may have different requirements.

  • Does oyster sauce taste like oysters?

    Despite the name, oyster sauce tastes more like a combination of salty soy sauce and sweet barbeque sauce. Lower quality or cheaper brands may have more of a fishy taste, however.

  • How to use oyster sauce

    Oyster sauce is commonly used in stir-fries, marinades, soups, or as a dipping sauce. It does have a strong flavor and should be used sparingly at first until you’ve had a chance to taste your dish.

  • Can oyster shells be recycled?

    In most aquaculture facilities around the world, oyster shell recycling methods are less-than-ideal and lead to most shells being dumped as a part of food waste.

    In response, researchers have explored ways to mitigate this widespread oyster shell waste, including techniques that combine shells with natural limestone to produce an eco-friendly cement.

View Article Sources
  1. "Corporate Overview." Lee Kum Kee.

  2. Liu, Zhaoqun, et al. "The Neuroendocrine-Immune Regulation in Response to Environmental Stress in Marine Bivalves." Frontiers in Physiology, vol. 9, 2018, pp. 1456., doi:10.3389/fphys.2018.01456

  3. Chilakala, Ramakrishna, et al. "Sustainable Solutions for Oyster Shell Waste Recycling in Thailand and the Philippines." Recycling, vol. 4, no. 3, 2019, pp. 35., doi:10.3390/recycling4030035