You’ve probably spied those two little letters, XO, on menus at Chinese restaurants (or perhaps, at the end of a text message). But much like tartare or HP sauce, the name itself reveals little in the way of a description.
General Chao head chef Son Sewoo is working to unravel some of the mystery that seems to go with XO sauce in the same way that pipis do.
“I first tried XO sauce when I was on a trip to Indonesia, visiting a local market,” says the chef, who was born in South Korea and moved to Australia in 2006. “It was XO pipis. They were so fresh, and the flavour of the XO is still unforgettable.” In fact, he’s built an entire restaurant around it.
But what, exactly, is XO? What’s in it? Where did it come from? Is it vegetarian?
In short: heaps of stuff! Hong Kong, we think. And no, definitely not.
XO is a premium sauce of Chinese origin, packed full of decadent ingredients and intrigue. Many Chinese culinary traditions are centuries old, but XO sauce is relatively new; no one can point definitively to one creator, but it’s said to have emerged in the thriving metropolis of 1980s Hong Kong. The name XO is a nod to XO Cognac, and, by extension, to the finer things in life, like wealth, status and exclusivity – XO stands for ‘extra old', which means the Cognac has been aged for a minimum of 10 years, and is suitably expensive.
“True XO sauce contains a mix of the most luxurious ingredients around, starting with conpoy (dried scallop), dried shrimp, spices, chilli and dried Chinese ham (from either the Yunnan or Jinhua regions),” Sewoo says.
It goes without saying that homemade is always superior to store-bought – if you have the time and the wherewithal to do so.
“Young chefs like me are not shy. We’ll bravely mix and match flavours from Eastern to Western cuisines.”
“It gives a tantalising aroma and additional flavour to any dish and goes well with both Eastern and Western cuisine, but I would suggest trying it with seafood – pipis, snapper, lobster or prawns.”
When it comes to General Chao, it’s very much a case of ‘the less you know, the better’. Much like watching a trailer often gives away the best bits of the film, any expectations surrounding Chinese food, or XO for that matter, won’t serve the General Chao experience well. Instead, go with an open mind and fully equipped tastebuds to try not one signature XO sauce, but six of them, including one made from Gran Reserva Spanish ham, Tasmanian green lip abalone, sea cucumber, Manjimup black truffle, Iranian saffron and a final touch of gold leaf. That’s the New Style Super Premium AAA Grade Western XO, which retails for $30 per 50g portion.
“Young chefs like me are not shy,” Sewoo says. “We’ll bravely mix and match flavours from Eastern to Western cuisines. I’m not trying to be a fusion chef, I want to be an innovative chef instead who creates a new Australian diet and new style of ‘Aussie food’. That’s why we’re recreating one of the most prestigious Chinese sauces with the best Australian ingredients, and turning it into something new.”
All General Chao’s XO sauces are made in-house, and span an array of flavour combinations. There’s the classic XO, made with dried shrimp, ham and plenty of garlic and ginger; the Spicy XO, for a three-chilli hit, and even a Mushroom XO for diners who want to avoid the animal products (remember the part about Sewoo reinventing the XO wheel?).
For the more serious consumer, there’s the Super Premium Seafood XO, made with abalone, clams, sea cucumber, quality dried scallop, ginger, garlic, dried shrimp and ham. And, of course, the aforementioned New Style.
The idea behind General Chao, Sewoo explains, is to allow the diner to steer the ship. Start by ordering a few things off the menu to share – like the 2kg Riverine Tomahawk steak (it’s giant, and carved at your table) or the jasmine tea-smoked duck dumplings – selecting one or two different XO sauces, and adding as little or as much to suit personal tastes. For a more old-school experience, try the pipis served with classic XO sauce.
Whether you DIY (try a Chinese grocer for dried scallops) or pay a visit to Son Sewoo at General Chao, 2019 could well be the year of XO and everything it symbolises.
Chatswood Interchange 436 Victoria Avenue, Chatswood NSW, (02) 9411 7977
Sun – Wed midday – 10 pm
Thu midday – 11 pm
Fri – Sat midday – midnight
XO sauce only appeared in Cantonese cuisine the 1980s. It’s a collection of the most prized ingredients from around China, and it was named after XO cognac – the height of sophistication in Hong Kong at the time. The dried scallops are a little expensive, but that’s kind of the point. Destination Flavour China
This is the sort of dish where you have to eat with your hands! It's heaven on a plate.
Named after a brand of XO Cognac (extra-old), to denote luxuriousness, this Chinese condiment adds a punch of flavour that makes it well worth the extra effort it takes to prepare. Food Safari Water
Not sure what to do with your leftover XO sauce? Try this classic rice noodle stir-fry.