Most Chinese condiments integral to the cuisine are so deeply rooted in the food that no one really knows when they were invented. XO sauce, however has a relatively short history.
According to rumors, XO Sauce was invented at the Hong Kong Peninsula Hotel in the 1980s. The seafood sauce is a hodgepodge of unusual, pricey ingredients that requires much skill and time to make. The condiment has since become a staple in southern Chinese cooking, 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. A small jar typically runs $30 USD or more depending on the brand and quality of the seafood ingredients used.
Chef Ming Yu, the executive chef of the famed Wing Lei restaurant (the first Chinese restaurant in the country to be awarded a Michelin Star and the only Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Award-winning Chinese restaurant in North America) at Wynn Las Vegas, who makes his own XO Sauce from scratch, says it typically takes him 8 hours to make his rendition of the sauce.
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.
“Most people these days buy their XO Sauce. It’s a time consuming and arduous process to make from scratch. The most difficult part of making XO Sauce from scratch is controlling the temperature and timing. If not cooked thoroughly, there will not be enough flavor. If overcooked, the sauce will be burnt and taste bitter,” says Yu.
Making XO sauce is time-intensive. Fresh scallops, shrimp, shallots, and other seafood must first be steamed, fried, and dried.
All the ingredients must be fried individually at a low temperature and mixed in with a bit sugar and chicken stock at the very end. Chef Yu says that those making the sauce must keep a constant eye on temperature of the wok oil.
So what does the sauce taste like?
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. XO sauce is not supposed to be overly spicy, but rather an intensely sweet, salty, and rich sauce that has an umami depth to it.
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.
Chef Yu likes to use the tangy, sweet, aromatic, and rich sauce with specific Cantonese dishes, but also doesn’t mind slathering it on vegetables, or anything savory. Due to all the luxury seafood ingredients used however, XO Sauce tends to complement seafood dishes the best.
Now that you know all the work that goes behind the scenes of making a jar of quality XO sauce, the cost of a small XO jar is not surprising. The best XO sauces are made with whole dried scallops, which are harvested from as far as Japan. Those bottles can go for over $50+. Would you try making your own XO sauce?
Want to make you own XO sauce? Try this amazing recipe from The Woks of Life.
About the Author: Kristie Hang is a TV host and journalist with an insatiable appetite for food and travel. Find her online on Instagram @kristiehang to keep up with her adventures.