A Beginner’s Guide to Eating Raw Oysters
If, like me, you grew up far inland, and was raised on a staple diet of red meat and chicken, seafood was a rarity, enjoyed mostly on special occasions in restaurants or dinner parties. Then would come out the oyster platter. “Ooh, wow,” everyone would say. But at the sight of these alien looking sea critters on full display in halved shells, you would feel like crawling back into your own shell, for you have not the faintest idea of how to eat them. No one wants to look the fool, right? For much of my early life I’ve shied away from the oyster, simply because I did not understand it. As with all ingredients, the best way to get the most flavour out of it is to understand it. For oysters, this is especially true.
Fresh is best, and picking the freshest oysters is easy as pie. You can learn a lot from an oyster’s shell. The shell gives a good indication of what to expect even before prying it open. Oysters with cracked or open shells should be discarded. This means that the oyster is dead, and definitely not fresh. The shell should be tight-sealed and difficult to shuck open. If the shell seems slightly open, play ‘knock-knock, who’s there’ with it. Give the shell a tap. A fresh, live oyster will snap shut, as if to say, “ you are not welcome here.” But in fact, what it is really saying is, “I am fresh and yummy and am waiting to be devoured.” The age of an oyster can be determined by the amount of rings on the shell, just like a tortoise or a tree, only oysters do taste a lot better.
Once inside the shell, a good quality oyster will have firm, plump and vibrant flesh, filling the entire shell. It should contain lots of moisture. Oysters tend to have a short shelf life and should best be consumed within hours of opening. The flesh ripens quickly, losing its sweetness, moisture and colour.
When eating oysters, there are a few key rules to ensuring that you get the best flavour:
Never use a fork or spoon. It’s common to serve oysters with a cocktail fork. Don’t be misled! Use the fork to loosen the flesh, but eat straight out of the shell, as a lot of the flavour is in the juice that rests inside the shell. Much to its own demise, the great tragedy of the oyster is not only that it is delicious, but that its shell acts as a spoon; a vessel for its own doom you might say.
Eat the first one naked. Slow down! Hold your horses! I don’t mean it like that. That will be frowned upon, I’m sure. This has nothing to do with its apparent aphrodisiac effects. The oyster itself should be naked, meaning no seasoning. This will allow you to appreciate its full, raw flavour. Try at least one naked oyster.
Acid and salt. Seafood in general go well with an acidic dressing, whether that be lime or lemon juice or a vinaigrette. But there is something you need to understand about acid and its effects on food, especially the delicate flesh of oysters. Acid breaks down the proteins in food. In fact, it is very similar to what happens to proteins when food is cooked. This process is called denaturation, which greatly alters taste and texture. Salt does the same. This bring us to the next rule…
Prepare as you go. As we now know, oysters have very delicate flesh, and their sweet, subtle taste can be easily overpowered. It really isn’t a meat that begs to be marinated. Rather than preparing a batch at a time, set condiments and accompaniments on the side and assemble each oyster as you eat it, especially now that we know how oysters react to acidic dressing.
Chew! An oyster takes years to grow into a delicious delight. It’s a sin to gulp it down without a single bite.
Yes, I know. We eat with our eyes. That much is true. And there is not a single thing astonishingly attractive about an oyster. But what use is it to swallow it whole? The oyster might at first be met with skepticism, doubt and even fear and horror. But bite into it, and you’ll fall in love. Trust me, I’m a cook.
Don’t be shy. So your mum smacked your hand for not using a knife and fork. So what. In oyster land, there is no etiquette. Here you use your hands. You lick our fingers. You slurp juice from seashells and you’ll probably look like an idiot while you do it. But hey, look around you. Everyone is doing it.