My first XO sauce was a gift from Taiwan. Three little jars with shrimp, scallops, and assorted seafood flavors looked very expensive. I opened the first jar, sniffed, and immediately liked its complex flavor. The sauce went into a variety of stir-fries and I was gone in the blink of an eye!
Every time I come across a culinary phenomenon, I tend to think it’s impossible to reproduce it at home. In many cases I was proven wrong. XO sauce is among them. The documentary series The Mind of a Chef (Season 1, Episode 5: Rotten; with David Chang) initiated my search for XO origins and recipes.
For the first time, XO sauce is mentioned in Hong Kong in 1980s. It is similar to the Fujian paste-like sauce Shacha (sounds ‘sa-cha’ or ‘sa-te’, depending on dialect). The XO sauce flavors are based on dry scallops, dry shrimp, and famous dry-cured Jinhua ham, which is often compared to the famous Spanish jamon. In addition to full of umami “aged” seafood and ham, the list of ingredients includes vegetable oil, chili peppers, garlic, and shallots. To prepare the paste, all finely chopped ingredients are caramelized in oil in a certain order, and then combined together.
Every XO component contributes to the rich, concentrated flavor. It explains why the sauce is given the name associated with high quality, prestige, and luxury. Today XO sauces have become more common. Many Asian restaurants all over the world create their signature XO sauces.
When choosing a commercial XO, read the label. They are different.
Amoy Extra Hot Abalone XO sauce: rapeseed oil, shallots, garlic extract, abalone, MSG, sugar, salt, chili peppers, paprika
Giant Tree Brand XO sauce: vegetable oil, dried scallops, dried shrimp, dried fish, shallots, garlic, chili peppers, sugar, salt, natural spices, black pepper, wine, candy, less than 0.1% preservative (potassium sorbate)
Lee Kum Kee XO sauce: soy oil, dried scallops, shallots, garlic, chili peppers, oyster extract, shrimp eggs, sugar, salt, spices, MSG
Yank Sing’s Chili XO sauce: corn oil, soy sauce, garlic, Chinese radish, chili peppers, dried shrimp, dried scallops, sugar, MSG, salt, black beans, less than 0.1% preservative (potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate)
Asian cooks claim that homemade XO sauce is always better than commercial. It makes sense, obviously, if all ingredients are available. In Austin, find them in MT Supermarket.