When it comes to edibles from the ocean, there are few with a reputation quite as polarized as the oyster. From the first evidence of a shellfish dinner in a South African cave 164,000 years ago, to the insatiable oyster slurping appetites of 19th century Manhattan dwellers, human kind has had an enduring relationship with these small, briny, bivalves.
He was a brave man that first ate an oyster." - Jonathan Swift
Oysters have been cultivated since at least Roman times, when Senator Sergius Orata built elaborate hydraulic systems to control water levels during growth. Archeological reports in Japan suggest human control of oyster production since 2000 BC.
There are truly only five species of oyster: Pacific (Japanese), Kumamoto, European Flat, Atlantic, and Olympia. Flavor varies based on the salinity and nutrients of surrounding water. This means oysters of the same species grown in different locations will never taste identical, and may often be called by different monikers to denote their home waters. A common misconception is that you could find a pearl while sitting down to dinner, but the oysters which provide such treasures are in a different family and dwell much deeper.
Filtering 30 to 50 gallons of water per bivalve per day, oyster beds are immensely beneficial to the surrounding environment, large beds even protect reefs from potentially damaging breakwaters. The largest oyster beds in the world once existed around Manhattan, consisting of nearly six million individuals. Before the Dutch arrived in the 17th century, the Lenape Indians had been enjoying them for generations.
On the other side of the continent in Namu, British Columbia, shell middens (places where debris from eating shellfish has collected over time) a kilometer long and nine meters deeps have been found, denoting 10,000 years of continuous bivalve consumption and occupation of the area.
Of course these native peoples would have been eating oysters raw. Many folks spook at the idea of doing so due to the risk of contamination from bacteria that exists in warmer coastal areas. In my opinion the risk is worth the reward.
"I have long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk. Whether we're talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters or working for organized crime, food, for me, has always been an adventure." - Anthony Bourdain
Oysters have an array of flavor profiles, briny, sweet, buttery, metallic, and mild. In order to experience this you need to try them raw and plain. Nervous? Here's a couple tips to ensuring you're eating a good oyster.
Smell them first, it should be like the scent of a light ocean breeze. Feel them next, they should be cold to the touch. The meat shouldn't be dried or wrinkled, and should sit in a clear brine, called liquor. If the liquor is milky or has an off-putting smell, don't eat it.
If you're wanting to eat oysters from a restaurant, choose a place that has high volume, where you know product is moving in and out quickly. If you've never been to the restaurant before, consider ordering a la carte instead of by the half or full dozen, so you can check for quality. When buying oysters to eat at home, ensure the oysters have been stored on ice and all the shells are tightly sealed. While grocery stores may have oysters, it is often safer to buy from a reputable local fish monger.
Once you've eaten your first raw oyster plain, there are a multitude of toppings you can try with them and everyone has a different opinion as to which are the best. Just make sure you practice restraint, and only add enough to enhance the oyster's delicate flavor, not overpower it.
The simplest of these options is just a squeeze of lemon, with a dash of Tabasco if you like a little heat. Another quick n' easy choice if you're not a whiz in the kitchen is shallot and red wine mignonette. At my restaurant we do an oyster shooter if you're feeling adventurous, that includes raw quail egg yolk, spicy ponzu, tobiko, and green onion. The possibilities are endless for toppings depending on whether you like spicy, sweet, or sour.
The oyster itself can even be a topping, for a Bloody Mary or a Caesar (Mary's superior Canadian cousin). I prefer the Caesar due to its use of Clamato, clam and tomato juice, which brings a more briny and savory depth to the beverage. If you're feeling particularly daring you can even drop the oyster right into a vodka, Champagne or even Mezcal shot!
If you haven't worked up to raw oysters yet there are a slew of other ways to try them: baked, broiled, fried, roasted, boiled, stewed, steamed, pickled, smoked, and canned. One of the most popular methods of preparation in the U.S. is Oysters Rockefeller. Served on the half shell, with a rich sauce of butter, parsley, other herbs and bread crumbs, then baked or broiled. The recipe was developed in 1889 at a New Orleans restaurant due to a shortage of escargot.
The Big Easy was also kind enough to give us another mouth-watering option, Oysters En Brouchette. Raw oysters are skewered alternating with pieces of bacon, then the dish is either broiled or breaded, then sauteed or deep fried. The grease from the bacon seeps into the oyster during the cooking process, producing a bite that is a balance of savory, briny, and smoky, with a bit of crunch on the outside.
"There are three kinds of oyster eaters, the loose-minded sports who will eat anything hot, cold, thin, thick, dead or alive, as long as it is an oyster; those who will eat them raw and only raw; and those who with equal severity will eat them cooked and no way else." - M.F.K Fischer
Here's one more ooey-gooey dish for those still unsure about eating raw: Three Cheese Oyster Gratin. This one pan appetizer is sure to impress guests, with flavors from the oysters, cheese, and white wine marrying to produce the perfect dip for a crusty french bread. Since the oysters are hidden this is a great way to get used to their flavor before facing them head on.
Regardless of the way your choose to enjoy these briny bivalves they can be a delight for any palate, and also provide high levels of zinc, calcium, iron, protein, Vitamin C and omega 3 fatty acids. Unfortunately these gender-bending (they change from male to female throughout their lives), ocean cleaning, mythical aphrodisiacs are some of the most imperiled marine residents on the planet, having lost almost 90% of their wild reefs, mostly due to destructive fishing practices. Thankfully reef restoration projects have proven to be effective, and by following the guidelines of programs like Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch when purchasing seafood, you can help with the protection of these vital and delicious critters.
Want to learn even more? In a Half Shell, created by Julie Qiu, a self described "oyster sommelier" based out of Brooklyn, New York, is one of my favorite resources to answer any other questions you might have!