This week let`s talk about the one and only XO Sauce – intensely sweet, salty, and rich sauce that has that specific umami depth to it. The seafood sauce is a combination of unusual, pricey ingredients that requires much skill and time to make. The condiment has since become a staple in southern Chinese cooking since the 1980s, especially in Guangdong Province and Hong Kong.
Named after a bottle of XO (extra-old) Cognac that’s not even used in recipe, the sauce has since become synonymous with Cantonese cooking. In addition to being a popular Cognac Hong Kongers like to drink, “XO” is also a Hong Kong slang denoting something of luxury, which makes sense considering how pricey the sauce can go for. XO Sauce is made with several costly components that include seafood like dried shrimp and scallops, salty Jinhua ham, shallots, garlic, chili, and oil. Other recipes also add salted cured fish, squid, onion, spicy cod roe, and baby anchovies, among other variations. There is no set recipe for XO Sauce per se, however there are certain universal ingredients that are present in each sauce such as scallops and dried shrimp. When the seafood is steamed and fried, it results in a taste similar to bacon. The seafood is then rehydrated and soaked overnight before chopped up chili, onion, and garlic, are added to the mix. Fresh and dried chilies add a smoky quality to the sauce without overpowering it.
So what does the sauce taste like?
The diner first tastes the chilli, then the amalgam of seafood, before the ham takes over, releasing intense, complex and glorious flavours that burst in the mouth. It’s extremely moreish, spicy, salty and sweet; if you’re a chilli-lover, you’ll find it near impossible to say no to XO sauce.The sauce, these days, has become a standard condiment served at dim sum. It’s even featured in many common dim sum dishes like XO sauce rice rolls or XO scallop fried rice. Due to its umami profile, the sauce can be slathered on almost anything or be eaten by itself like peanuts or other finger foods.
Although XO sauce is technically a chili sauce, the sauce is more fragrant than spicy. The chilies added are used for flavor rather than heat. But beware, since the sauce brings out the fifth dimension in food, it tends to make the person eating it continue to eat more.
Some Chinese gourmands call it the emperor of sauces, others the king. Chefs and restaurateurs jealously guard its recipe, and top-drawer Chinese restaurants proudly offer this classy condiment to their valued clients. It stands head and shoulders above the rest of Chinese sauces not only because of its expense but also because it represents the continued evolution of Chinese cuisine, based on a very sound knowledge of ingredients. XO’s culinary history, although relatively short, is shrouded in secrecy and mystery. The general consensus seems to be that it first appeared in the early ’80s, somewhere in the top-end seafood restaurants of Hong Kong. Spring Moon, the Chinese restaurant at The Peninsula, is often credited with its invention, while others believe the seafood restaurants in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui district are more likely to have been reponsible for its creation.
Irrespective of its birthplace, there’s no denying this rich sauce’s ability to add that extra something special to many a dish. It’s delicious with prawn dumplings such as har gau, or a plate of stir-fried scallops, or braised Cantonese egg noodles yi meen with prawns, or as a topping on bean curd. It’s also excellent tossed through steamed mussels as we have done here. Although it’s possible to buy XO in a jar, it really doesn’t compare. As labour-intensive – and expensive – as it is, you won’t fail to be impressed by this king of sauces.