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The Chinese Sauce That Goes Well With Everything

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Until recently, I had no idea what XO sauce was; I only knew that I loved it. (To get the Beyoncé puns out of my system from the top: I loved it like XO.)

The first time I tried it was at Chris Jaeckle’s Japanese-Venetian restaurant in Greenwich Village, All’onda. The fatty, briny, garlicky sauce was so delicious—and so different from anything I’d tried before—that I can’t even remember the vegetables (pasta?) it covered. But, as I’ve since learned, that’s the point of XO sauce—to be so overtly rich that it steals the show.

XO Sauce
XO Sauce

Developed in the 1980s in Hong Kong, XO sauce is named after a descriptor on bottles of Cognac, popular in China, to denote “Extra-Old.” While the sauce itself doesn’t contain Cognac or any liquor for that matter, the adopted name—a brilliant marketing strategy—implies that, like aged Cognac, it is also luxurious.

And, as with Cognac and other high-end liquors, it felt so shrouded in mystery to me that after tasting it several times, I couldn’t even begin to decipher what went into it.

Cognac—and the luxury it implies—served as the inspiration for XO sauce in the 1980s.
Cognac—and the luxury it implies—served as the inspiration for XO sauce in the 1980s. Photo by James Ransom

I had so little a clue that at a subsequent dinner at All’onda, I assured the vegetarians I was dining with that it was “maybe, kind of vegetarian?” But, as I’ve since learned, XO sauce couldn’t be further from vegetarian (I’m sorry, vegetarian friends, if you are reading this now).

Though there are many versions of the sauce, the basic formula includes dried scallops, dried shrimp, and some type of cured meat. Like I said: not vegetarian. Beyond that, it may include chile flakes, ginger, garlic, spices like cinnamon and anise, shallots, even a little sugar, and an oil to hold it all together. It’s also, like Cognac, expensive—mostly thanks to the dried seafood.

Shrimp and scallops: The two main ingredients of XO sauce. Photos by James Ransom

When I headed to Chinatown on Saturday afternoon, with no fewer than eight printed XO sauce recipes to guide me, I made a beeline to a large store, New Kam Man on Canal Street, that I knew to have a long aisle of dried food. After scouring the aisle—which seemed to hold everything but dried fish—I landed at a corner I’d never noticed before with jars upon jars of dried seafood. Among the jars, which were roughly two-feet tall and half as wide, were six indicating dried scallops and several dried shrimp.

While the shrimp all fell into a similar price range (roughly $25 per pound), the scallops ranged from $23 to $100 per pound. Remembering a Chicago Tribune article that mentioned that dried scallop quality and taste is reflected by its price, I opted for a half-pound of the middle-range ($60 per pound) so that I’d have enough for four batches of (high-scallop-quality) XO sauce. The entire purchase—dried seafood, Shaoxing wine, Chinese sausage, soppressata, vegetable oil, shallots, garlic, and spices—set me back nearly $70.

A Chinatown store with buckets of dried shrimp and scallops—among other goodies.
A Chinatown store with buckets of dried shrimp and scallops—among other goodies.

Once I’d exited the store, I learned that the corner of the store that I considered a treasure trove was just a slice of what’s out there. Walking down familiar streets, I discovered maybe a dozen stores I’d never noticed before that sold only dried items—primarily fish—with the outside awnings shading serve-yourself shrimp and scallops, and the higher, indoor shelves offering abalone at up to $4000 per pound.

For those who don’t live in cities with good Chinese markets, there are a number of online stores, including Amazon, where these harder-to-source ingredients are available—even the abalone.

Testing the XO sauce (two beers and a cup of tea into the endeavor)
Testing the XO sauce (two beers and a cup of tea into the endeavor)

Attempt 1

After lugging my ingredients home, I made a carefully orchestrated game plan—a piece of paper covered in scrawled changes and arrows—and set to work. Most of the seafood I placed into containers of water to rehydrate overnight, and roughly one-quarter I placed in a steamer. In Danny Bowien’s description of XO sauce in The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook, one of many recipes I looked to, he writes, “soaking the seafood leaches out all the flavor.” Instead, he steams it for 30 minutes.

The only problem with this method was that once I’d steamed the seafood for 30 minutes, and then 40 minutes, and then 2 hours, the fish was not noticeably hydrated. Possibly leaky steamer be damned, I blended the shrimp and fish and set to sautéing them. Forty minutes later, I came face to face with heartbreak: The XO sauce was a burnt, crispy mess.

Left: My sad, sad Attempt 2. Right: The glorious Attempt 3.

Attempt 2

As I mentioned before, the XO sauce of my dreams—the one that launched the trajectory that found me wading through bins of dried fish the day before—was Chris Jaeckle’s. His recipe, which is characteristically Italian-influenced, calls for olive oil and soppressata, so olive oil and soppressata I did.

But for all my carefully-laid plans, I didn’t take into consideration the apparently vast differences between vegetable oil, called for in most of the XO recipes I referred to, and olive oil, which Jaeckle uses. After finding myself with a foamy, oily mess, I discovered that it's not possible to make a one-to-one swap. I’d used 1 1/4 vegetable oil, following the quantity indicated in the other recipes; he’d used 3/4 cup olive oil: It was a world and 1/2 cup of difference.

XO Sauce with Broccoli Rabe
XO Sauce with Broccoli Rabe

Attempt 3

For my next trick, I stuck with the classics: I used the seafood soaked overnight and kept my vegetable oil close. But instead of using all-Chinese sausage, I took a cue from Jaeckle and subbed in half-soppressata.

After reading through my trove of Google-sourced XO sauce recipes, some versions seemed too spicy-sweet, and others did not hold back on the garlic (and this is coming from a garlic-lover). I doctored my Franken-recipe (a mishmash of 6 to 8 recipes) to hit a happy medium, with vinegar-y Shaoxing wine balancing the sweet sausage, and put a kibosh on the Thai bird chiles. As Danny Bowien’s recipe recommends, I made note to stir in a fried element at the end. He adds fried garlic, but I pulled the fried onions from the back of my cabinet and a bag of scallions I’d bought on impulse in Chinatown.

The end result was delicious: fatty, briny, and garlicky, but also spicy, textured, and unbelievably addictive. In one dinner, I ate it three ways: In a pesto pasta in lieu of chorizo (yes, pesto—it worked and it was glorious!), with sautéed broccoli rabe, and straight from the pan.

Other ways to serve XO sauce:

  • Over salmon
  • Sautéed with brussels sprouts
  • In fried rice
  • On top of a pan-seared tofu
  • Tossed with roasted cauliflower florets or tahini-roasted broccoli
  • As a pasta sauce
  • On/with/near literally anything else

Attempt 4 never happened—I was too distracted gorging on Attempt 3—but when it does, I will be putting it all over all of the above.

XO Sauce

XO Sauce

Leslie Stephens Leslie Stephens
Makes slightly under 1 quart
  • 1/2 cup dried shrimp
  • 1/2 cup good-quality dried scallops
  • 4 1/2 ounces hot soppressata, diced
  • 1/2 cup Chinese sausage, about 2 links, cut into rounds (or bacon with 1 tablespoon honey added)
  • 1 1/2 cups vegetable oil, or any neutral oil (do not use olive oil), plus more as needed
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons dried red chile flakes, plus more as desired
  • One 3-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
  • 4 star anise
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup fried onions
  • 1/2 cup frieds scallions (or an additional 1/4 cup fried onions)
Go to Recipe

Have you ever tried XO sauce before? Do you have a favorite XO sauce recipe? Tell us in the comments below!

Automagic Spring Menu Maker!
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Sauce, DIY Food