Oyster omelette, fresh oysters fried with beaten eggs and usually bound with some sort of starch solution, is an Asian street food staple.
I had my first taste in Hong Kong about 15 years ago -- the dish's flavorless bivalves and strangely gummy texture left me underwhelmed. Since then I've sampled -- usually at the goading of well-meaning local gourmands -- various versions, from Shanghai (mushy oysters) to Penang (nice char, but an awful lot of grease), and I remained unimpressed.
Until last June, when we ate our way around Tainan, Taiwan's unofficial xiao chi ('small eats', ie 'snack') capital.
On Guohe Jie, a narrow lane alongside Yun Le Market that's lined on both sides with food stalls, four or five oyster omelette vendors ply their trade side by side. Deciding which stall to order from was easy; the stools in front of this gentleman's counter were consistently occupied when others sat empty.
The quality of eh-ah jian, as oyster omelette is known in Taiwan, rests firmly on the quality of its main ingredient. More than three weeks of grazing along the island's west coast showed us that its seafood is among the best in the region. And Tainan proper sits near the coast, so the freshness of this vendor's oysters was never in question
To make his omelette, he heats oil on a well-seasoned griddle and adds about fifteen plump specimens. While the oysters sizzle he breaks a couple eggs (duck eggs are available on request) to their side, piercing the yolks with the corner of his spatula. After sprinkling bean sprouts, shredded lettuce, and bits of pork crackling over eggs and oysters, he drizzles a third of a spatula of starch solution (sweet potato starch mixed with water) over the lot.
A large lid placed over the griddle firms up the eggs and the binder,
and then he folds the four sides of the 'pancake',
to make a neat egg and oyster envelope.
The eh ah jian is served alongside a pool of sauces, one a bit sweet and salty like fermented bean paste, the other tasting like a cross between hoisin and oyster sauce.
I could do without the sauces, frankly, and the next time I dine at this stall I'll ask the vendor to leave them off my plate.
Otherwise, his forty years of oyster omelette-making experience manifest themselves in hands down the best oyster omelette we've ever eaten, a lightly charred egg pillow spilling briny, barely cooked oysters and crispy sprouts and lettuce and sporting barely a hint of grease that made me do a one-eighty on this street food specialty that I'd long scorned.
The key here is the omelette maker's light hand with the starch solution: there's enough of it to pull the other ingredients together, but not enough to create that gumminess that I find such a turn-off in other versions.
Oysters at 8am? If they take the form of this gent's oyster omelette, why not?
Oyster omelette, Guohe Jie (second stall from the corner, right next to a popiah vendor), Tainan, Taiwan. Early morning to 3pm-ish.