There are few foods that get a conversation (or a party) going the way that oysters can. Whether you're a big fan, or can't be in the same room as them, these briny sea creatures stir up a lot of opinions and confusion. Like, how do you eat oysters? Are you supposed to chew them? We really need to know so we're prepared the next time we go to a romantic Toronto restaurant or to Coffee Oysters Champagne with our friends.
Here to set us straight on the shellfish is expert Jason Kun who grew up foraging oysters in Prince Edward Island. "Low tide coves were my playground as a kid," says Kun who studied biology and environmental science before opening Island Oysters, his sustainable seafood shop right here in Toronto. Kun's whole philosophy around oysters is to make the experience more approachable and engaging. Island Oysters uses detailed and recognizable descriptions like 'notes of fresh croissant and a buttery finish' (OK, we feel that) for their oysters, and their prices aren't outrageously marked up.
We're also hoping to make your next oyster experience a little less intimidating with this guide. So you can worry less about how to eat oysters and spend more time enjoying them.
What are oysters?
"Oysters are shellfish. They are a bivalve, which is a part of the larger mollusk family. In the first two weeks of an oyster's life, it is mobile until it lands on some sort of surface where it can live for years. In North America, you'll often hear the term, 'oyster bed' and that's a whole bunch of oysters growing together.
Oysters are hermaphroditic, which means they can change their sex depending on the environment. They don't have any nerve endings, and they don't have a brain. It is an animal, but it's so close to being a plant because it just sits there filtering water."
Where do oysters come from?
"In Canada, they come from the east and west coasts. They come from places that are close to shores. They don't grow in the open ocean because they eat a lot of phytoplankton which is more abundant in places where there is freshwater. Where you see a river meeting an ocean, that's a great place for oysters."
Are oysters sustainable?
"Over 90 per cent of consumed oysters are farmed. There is a lot of misconception that farmed seafood is not good. But that's not true, especially with oysters, which clean out the bays where they're grown. They don't produce any waste, and you don't have to feed them.
Oysters in an oyster farm are sitting in a floating tray, so you're not planting things into the ocean floor or disturbing anything. They're a natural filter feeder and help clarify the water where they're grown. When that water becomes clearer, sunlight can get through to the bottom allowing more vegetation to grow which supports a whole food chain and a myriad of other species. Oyster farms are pretty cool."
How do you eat oysters?
"You always chew your food! A lot of people think that you just swallow an oyster, but you're missing out on all of the best parts: the chewy, salty, protein parts. The only wrong way to eat an oyster is to not actually eat it. You should always chew an oyster. You will get so much more joy from eating an oyster when you actually chew it."
How do you serve oysters?
"Most Canadian oysters are consumed straight up raw, just opened, as fresh as you can. A lot of people like to eat oysters with lemon, horseradish, mignonette. When I make a mignonette, I like to think about different flavour profiles: the acid of the vinegar, the sweetness of the apple, the bitterness of onion and pepper, and for spiciness, we put a little bit of Tabasco or some hot sauce in it. So it has this nice, full flavour profile to add to the oysters. Oysters are best served on ice to keep them cold and the ice helps the oyster to stay flat so the brine doesn't drip out."
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What are some different types of oysters?
These are considered Canada's top oysters from the west coast. The crown jewel of the pacific: smooth tasting, easy to shuck, very clean shells.
These are the most common oysters on the east coast from Malpeque Bay (P.E.I.). They're briny and start off really salty. They can have notes of caramelized onion, sweet corn, or buttered popcorn, and caramelized carrot.
This is a beach-grown west coast oyster. They have ornate fluting on the shells that look really wild. You can taste a smokey brine with notes of cucumber.
Are oysters safe?
"Oysters should be consumed within 60 minutes after shucking because the oyster will start to shrivel up, and it's not the same. That's the magic of shucking an oyster and immediately consuming it, nothing feels more raw and visceral and present. All the oysters that come to Toronto are tested by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for bacteria. If they detect any bacteria in the oysters that are beyond the healthy amount, the oysters get recalled. Eating oysters in Canada is safer than eating oysters in the southern coast because cold waters have less bacteria in them."
What are some misconceptions about oysters?
"One misconception is that oysters are slimy. But the liquid inside the oyster is closer to the consistency of saltwater, and that's actually what the brine inside an oyster is: seawater, the lifeblood of the oyster. If you see a dried-up oyster, that means it's not as fresh. Another is that people think that an oyster might taste really fishy. In fact, it's the complete opposite. An oyster is probably the least fishy of all seafood out there. It's more briny and salty."
Can you cook them?
"Absolutely. One of the most famous baked oyster recipes is Oyster Rockefeller where the oyster is opened up and filled with cream, spinach and bacon. The Rockefeller recipe is better for larger oysters. As you go further south, the oysters get bigger because they grow faster in warmer water. The flavours of oysters on the southern coast are creamier and not as brisk and clean-tasting as the oysters up here.
A lot of Asian cuisines like to steam larger west coast oysters with ginger, scallions and noodles. We take some of our oysters and put them in our clam chowder. I sometimes put them with pesto in my pasta. It has more of the flavour of a mussel when you cook them. They cook quickly so you don't want to overcook them."
What do you pair oysters with?
"Since the oyster is so salty, you don't want anything that coats your palette too much. If you're having wine, you'll want something dry. Maybe a buttery chardonnay would be acceptable, but you don't want to have a fruity wine or an ice wine. Personally, I like a nice, clean lager. Oysters and vodka — I'm not the biggest fan because if you have too much vodka, you'll be under the table before you finish your oysters. The classic is of course champagne and oysters. A nice, dry prosecco is good too." (Psst, we've also heard they're great with a classic french 75 cocktail.)
Are oysters really an aphrodisiac?
"Oysters are the highest food source of zinc. Zinc is often prescribed to people with hormonal imbalances or if they're trying to reproduce. If you're looking at any kind of prenatal, or if you're trying to get your libido up, your doctor is going to prescribe zinc. Boom! I would have to say, 100 per cent, that oysters are an aphrodisiac."