During the early stages of colonisation in Australia and the United States, oysters were viewed as more than just an appetiser – they were one of the most readily available sources of protein for those situated near the ocean or saltwater estuaries. These days, cooking an oyster is viewed as culinary blasphemy. While I agree that the purest way to enjoy an oyster is freshly shucked – tasting the brine and chewing on the adductor muscle – I also find it difficult to eat more than three or four in this state without experiencing diminishing returns.
A recent trip to Bawaka, sacred Indigenous lands in East Arnhem, gave me the experience of using oysters and related molluscs as a nourishing key element to a meal. The Yolngu people refer to these foods as maypal. Maypal have been a staple in these parts for tens of thousands of years and the variety is immense. Some 50-odd species proliferate the rocks and mangroves, but gathering and identifying these foods requires skill. I would often step right over clumps of mud mussels in the mangrove.
Cooked larger oysters – especially the native varieties – really sing when paired with a high-quality short-grain rice. It’s also a great place for the uninitiated or more squeamish to start. After seeing the depth and breadth of the environments oysters grow well in, it would be only fitting to celebrate their adaptability and to eat them more often and in more ways.
Serves 2 as a meal
– 1 large daikon
– 12 rock oysters
– 100ml light soy sauce
– 50ml mirin
– 20g dried scallops
– 40ml rice vinegar
– 10ml sesame oil
– ½ cup bonito flakes
– 100g bean sprouts
– 1 tsp brown sugar
– 20ml fish sauce
– 20ml soy sauce
– 40g sesame seeds, toasted
– 2 bunches chrysanthemum greens
– 200g koshihikari rice
– 1 finger young ginger, very finely shredded
Cut the daikon into one-inch rounds, then peel and round off any square edges with a paring knife. Shuck the oysters into a colander and brush them with a pastry brush to remove any grit. Bring the soy and mirin to the boil before adding the dried scallops. Cook the daikon in the stock for five minutes or until tender, then drop in the oysters before removing the pot from the heat. Let the oysters sit in the liquid for two minutes before lifting them out with the scallops and daikon and setting aside in a bowl.
Bring the poaching liquid to the boil again, then add 20 millilitres of the rice vinegar, along with the sesame oil and bonito flakes. Let this sauce sit off the heat for a minute before passing it through a fine strainer. Cool in the refrigerator.
Blanch the bean sprouts in boiling water for 10 seconds before refreshing in iced water. Scoop them out of the water so as to discard most of the seed head, which will remain behind in the water. Drain the sprouts on paper towel. Mix the brown sugar, fish sauce, remaining rice vinegar, soy sauce and half the sesame seeds in a bowl, then add the sprouts to this dressing. Let steep for at least 30 minutes prior to serving.
Pick the chrysanthemum down to single leaves and discard most of the stem. Blanch the leaves briefly in a large pot of salted boiling water before refreshing in iced water. Strain and squeeze the leaves into two cigar-shaped nuggets, completely removing any excess water.
Place the scallops, daikon and half the oysters together with the rice, 800 millilitres of chilled water and half the sauce into a heavy-based shallow pot. Place a layer of aluminium foil over the pot before fixing the lid. Cook on medium to high heat for eight minutes, then turn to very low heat for a further eight minutes. Finally turn the heat off entirely and let the pot rest for eight minutes before removing the lid and gently fluffing the rice with a wooden paddle or plastic round spoon so as not to break the rice grains.
Plate the condiments by separating the last of the chilled sauce into two separate serving bowls. Roll the chrysanthemum nuggets in the remaining toasted sesame seeds and place into one of the sauce dishes. Put the six chilled oysters into the other sauce dish. The finely shredded ginger should be placed in a separate bowl with the marinated bean sprouts.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 28, 2019 as "Pot knack". Subscribe here.