A relative newcomer to the recipe stage, XO sauce is believed to have first popped up in Hong Kong during the 1980s. Taking its name from XO cognac – that’s ‘extra old’ for non-drinkers – as a nod to exclusivity and affluence, this complex condiment contains a number of luxury ingredients, including dried scallops squid and shrimp, and Jinhua ham (a Chinese ham similar to jamón and prosciutto). When dried scallops can cost up to $300 a kilogram it’s no wonder the sauce is expensive to prepare or buy.
Making XO sauce is time-intensive, too. The dried scallops and prawns must be rehydrated by soaking overnight, and the chopping of chilli, garlic, onion and the abovementioned ingredients calls for a relatively dexterous hand.
While some cooks may wish to speed up the pulverising process by using a food processor, China Doll head chef Frank Shek says a simple knife is always best.
“What you want in a good XO, is texture and mouthfeel and mouth bite,” he tells us. “So if everything’s mashed to a generic pulp, it’s very hard to discern all the star ingredients. We keep ours quite chunky here.”
Chilli is another star of XO, although the sauce is not supposed to be unbearably spicy. Rather, the dried and fresh chillies should add a smokiness and zing, elevating the other ingredients, rather than overpowering them.
“XO is primarily supposed to be aromatic, rather than in-your-face hot,” Frank says. “Chillies are used for flavour rather than actual heat.”
The good news for those who make XO from scratch is that a little will go a long way. Tossed with noodles or served atop rice and egg, a dollop of this umami-laden sauce can dress anything up. Similarly, XO works a treat with seafood and meat. Try tossing it through mussels or clams, or mixed into a beef braise.
Store your XO sauce in sterilised jars (see our instructions here) and it'll keep in the fridge for up to six months.
5 ways with XO sauce
Wheat noodles, roasted peanuts and bean sprouts will be all you need to whip up a quick dinner once you have a jar of homemade XO sauce sitting in your fridge. On top of the Jinhua ham, dried scallops and prawns, this recipe calls for lap cheong (Chinese sausage), imparting a rich, smoky flavour.
XO sauce was the height of sophistication in Hong Kong in the 1980s. "The dried scallops are a little expensive, but that’s kind of the point," says Adam Liaw who shares this rich and punchy family recipe. Makes 500 ml and it'll keep in your fridge for 2 months. Destination Flavour China
Take your XO down a Sri Lankan path with this recipe from Peter Kuruvita. Containing pandanus and curry leaves, ginger, cinnamon and dried prawns, this recipe is full of flavour and aroma.
Adam Liaw's Singaporean take on XO replaces Jinhua ham with bak kwa, an Asian pork jerky, and adds a spoonful of dark soy. Here, the rich and luxurious oxtail is cleverly offset with fresh and tangy papaya.
In this XO-spiked stir-fry, Leanne Kitchen opts for the store-bought variety but warns that all commercial XOs are not born equal. "As a guide, the more expensive ones tend to be better and, if in doubt, just ask your local friendly Asian grocer," she instructs.