Chinese

The Chinese Sauce That Goes Well With Everything

January 14, 2016

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.

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.

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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. 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. Photo 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.

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)

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.

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.

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

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39 Comments

Susan January 31, 2016
What can I substitute dried scallop with? Oddly I couldn't find them in a major Asian grocery store here in Ottawa/ Canada, and it's huge! Don't have the energy to scour Chinatown, suggestions?
 
Author Comment
Leslie S. February 10, 2016
You can technically use any dried fish—or double the shrimp! Let me know how it turns out!
 
Debra L. January 29, 2016
As a Malaysian Chinese, I grew up with XO sauce, and while I can't find it here at the local Asian markets, there is an online store I have purchased many yummy "home" food stuff and they do carry the bottled XO<br />http://www.asiansupermarket365.com/Amoy-Abalone-XO-Sauce-Hot-Extra-Hot-2-8-oz-8-p/haaxwjj.htm
 
Noreen F. January 19, 2016
And here I've been wasting my time looking for the bottled stuff. Not surprised that I haven't found it where I live, but I also checked half-a-dozen grocery stores in the Chicago area when visiting there, and no one had even heard of it. Now to check the local oriental groceries for dried shrimp and scallops...
 
Eric January 29, 2016
Weird, I live in a much smaller city than Chicago, with no chinatown, and I've found a few instances of bottled XO at the local asian markets. I wonder if it goes by a different name to native speakers?
 
Jona @. January 18, 2016
Interesting article, which makes me miss Beijing. <br /><br />I still haven't decided if I am gonna try the recipe, it's gonna be pretty hard to get most of the ingredients where I live right now :(
 
Author Comment
Leslie S. January 18, 2016
You should try it if you can! Many of the ingredients are available online—I know even Amazon carries several :) Enjoy!
 
kath1 January 16, 2016
I can't eat shrimp, could I double the scallops? Sub something else non crustacean? This sounds like my dream food. Oh also I have never heard of soppressata, what is similar? Or just use more Chinese sausage?
 
HalfPint January 17, 2016
Try subbing with dried squid. For the soppressato, try using prosciutto and a little red chili flakes.
 
AntoniaJames January 14, 2016
P.S. Dried shrimp and scallops are so strongly flavored I would not worry, at all, about leaching out the flavor by soaking overnight. I use the Grubstreet.com recipe recommended by Halfpint, which calls for soaking, and that stuff is amazing, with bold, powerful flavors. The title of the Grubstreet.com piece is, notably, "Flavor Ammo," which perfectly describes their version. <br /><br />Also, I like how it is other-condiment-neutral; one can add soy sauce, or rice wine, or sesame oil easily to taste, depending on the dish. ;o)
 
AntoniaJames January 14, 2016
Such an interesting coincidence that you should post this, Lesilie. I'm sure the Food52 community will be quite happy that I can finally stop singing the praises of XO sauce, every chance I get. (I've encouraged everyone here, on no fewer than nine occasions - vox clematis in deserto -- to try XO sauce, since making my first batch, following Halfpint's introduction to it via a Hotline thread in mid-September.)<br /><br />I'm glad to see that more Food52 members will be introduced to XO sauce. It's one of my favorite weeknight dinner helpers. <br /><br />As noted below, it's really not that hard. I encourage you to try to my 5-ingredient version (not counting salt, sugar and oil). I just made my third batch, so I could give a large jar to my son who was visiting for the holidays. ;o)
 
Tracy January 15, 2016
Wow. Sounds like someone really wishes *she* were the writer for Food52....Snark alert.
 
AntoniaJames January 15, 2016
Thank you, Tracy. I've taken your comment to heart and will no longer be posting comments on Food52.
 
Sean R. January 15, 2016
Tracy, SHAME ON YOU. Putting other people down is disrespectful. Please do better next time.<br /><br />AntoniaJames, you're clearly a food lover and I rather enjoyed reading your experiences with XO sauce. Please don't let one unkind comment change your actions in any way. I support whatever you choose, but do reconsider self-censorship.
 
minipanda January 15, 2016
The loss of AntoniaJames' comments is a profound loss for the community. <br /><br />As a final note, thank you AntoniaJames for the recommendation to make XO sauce. I hesitated about making it after reading the article, but your comments persuaded me that I must.
 
Greenstuff January 15, 2016
I assume, Tracy, that you meant you were being snarky? Well, you're forgive if you get AntoniaJames to keep commenting and writing articles for free, as she has in the past. In fact, I found this article specifically because AJ had commented, and, like minipanda, I think I'll try her method first. <br />
 
OdaO January 29, 2016
I am always thankful for Antonia James' lovely comments, keep posting every word! We are so blessed for the time you spend to share with us your knowledge and great skill. Please don't listen to this unfortunate comment from a tracy, and sadly uncomfortable member of this great community. FOOD 52, I love you!
 
mawhorts January 29, 2016
Food52 began as a place for community contributions, not a top-down edited food magazine. It has become more top-down as it has grown, but it would be a shame if the hierarchy of editors and professional writers drowned out the community voices that started the whole thing.
 
HalfPint January 14, 2016
I've been making my own XO sauce for a few years now. I use the recipe from Grub Street. Totally agree, use it on everything. As a quick snack (or more likely late night meal), I scoop a generous spoonful and eat it with hot cooked rice.<br /><br />It's also good with roasted soy sauce chicken.
 
Alexandra S. January 14, 2016
Wow, what an effort! I discovered xo sauce at a dim sum restaurant in Irving, CA awhile ago now and immediately fell in love. Every time my husband and I went back, we would hope the noodles with xo sauce were making the rounds, and sometimes we were lucky, and sometimes we were not. Requesting them didn't always work. I cannot believe you made xo sauce from scratch!
 
Author Comment
Leslie S. January 14, 2016
It was definitely a life experience... and lesson in patience... ha but actually now that I've made it once, I'll definitely be making it again! You should definitely give it a go—it's crazy how good this stuff is homemade! I've been cooking with it every night for the past week!
 
Alexandra S. January 14, 2016
I bet! I sounds/looks as though it was well worth the effort. Can't wait to give it a go!
 
AntoniaJames January 14, 2016
Alexandra, trust me, it doesn't have to be that hard, once you get your dried scallops. (Dried shrimp can be found in packages in many Asian groceries.)<br /><br />I summarize in this recipe (from the "Recipe to Clean Out the Fridge" contest a few weeks ago, but equally apt for "Best Thing You Made This Year"), <br /><br />I take about a half cup each of dried tiny scallops and dried tiny shrimp (I source both from a shop in Chinatown) and soak, well covered, for 6 – 8 hours or overnight. I soak them in a covered yogurt container, as the smell can get a bit strong. <br /><br />When ready to make the XO Sauce, I chop three or four good sized slices of prosciutto in the food processor and put them in a large skillet with about ½ inch of sunflower seed oil. I cook that over medium heat until the prosciutto starts to crisp up and turn red. <br /><br />Meanwhile, I chop in the food processor, until it turns to paste, the soaked shrimp and scallops, along with 2 heads of garlic (cloves all peeled) and about a fat 4” long piece of ginger that I’ve peeled and coarsely chopped. When that is processed to a fine paste, I dump it all into the skillet with the prosciutto, a good pinch of salt and a couple pinches of sugar, and cook for about 10-15 minutes until it’s all nice and light brown, stirring thoroughly to blend all the ingredients. <br /><br />The recipe also calls for chilies, which you would finely chop and add with the salt and sugar. (I don’t use them.) Store covered in the fridge. It keeps for at least a couple of months; the nice people over on Grubstreet.com say it lasts forever. It will be eaten long before then, of course. Once you try this, you’ll immediately understand why.<br /><br />My recipe, which captures how I've been using XO Sauce since Halfpint introduced it to me via a Hotline thread in mid-September is here:<br /><br />https://food52.com/recipes/39971-aj-s-orts-and-nubbins-aka-xo-sauced-anything<br /><br />Here is a link to the Grub Street recipe, for a comparison:<br /><br />http://www.grubstreet.com/2012/08/how-to-use-xo-sauce.html<br /><br />Cheers,<br />AJ ;o)<br />
 
Alexandra S. January 14, 2016
I'm so impressed by how many of you have made xo sauce from scratch! I suppose if ever there were a place to find extremely adventurous diy spirits, it's here. I made caramel sauce over the holidays and told everyone I knew. If I make xo sauce, no one will hear the end of it — sounds as though it's something I need to make ASAP. Thanks for all of recipe links, AJ. <br /><br />Since I will be making a trip to my Asian market, what are everyone's thoughts on peeled garlic? It's always so tempting ... <br /><br />And not that anyone is thinking about it, but I meant Irvine, CA not Irving, which doesn't exist. This thread is making me seriously nostalgic for Capital Seafood dim sum. Yum.
 
HalfPint January 15, 2016
if you eat a lot of garlic, buy it already peeled. Total godsend. Yes I know how easy it is to smash and remove the peel but I hate how sticky it can get and then the peel sticks to your fingers. And I like to thinly slice garlic for stir fries. Bonus: peeled garlic will last 2-3 weeks in fridge. I buy ~2 cups worth and it usually lasts me a month. Costs about $2. But I like lots of garlic in my food, so if you're the occasional garlic user don't bother. It will just go bad.
 
Alexandra S. January 15, 2016
I love lots of garlic, too. I think I'm going to have to pick up a tub for this project. Thanks!
 
tia January 15, 2016
Oh, god, I've had XO noodles. They are so unbelievably good. I might actually have to try this despite my usual doze of lazy.
 
OdaO January 29, 2016
Recently I had some leftover garlic paste from making marinated chili shrimps, and I suddenly used it all over my food. On my toast underneath other toppings etc. Now I make batches in my foodprocessor from solo garlic, extra virgin olive oil and a little salt. I might add a dash of honey and lemon too, next time. Keep a jar in the fridge, ready at hand for any need of garlic, cold or hot.
 
HalfPint January 29, 2016
That's a good idea, but be careful of botulism, especially with raw garlic. Even though you have it in oil and stored in the fridge, spores can survive and grow in anaerobic conditions.
 
OdaO January 29, 2016
Thanks HP, great to be reminded. <br />I only use jars ready from my dishwasher. Funny you mention it since this* was part of my comment, but I removed it as not to look as a control freak (which sadly I still am) ;)<br />* "I live by a rule of never use anything but a clean vessel when spooning stuff from any condiment jar in my fridge, and the remaining content stay fresh much longer. <br />Never mind the occasional late night snack, with a following pile of dirty spoons."
 
OdaO January 29, 2016
Please, why especially cautious regarding raw garlic? Anything raw you mean, or mainly garlic?
 
tia January 29, 2016
I don't think it's specifically garlic. The caution is relevant for basically any plant matter; it's why groups like the USDA don't recommend infusing oils. You can't kill botulism with boiling water, though you can with a pressure canner (I don't know how hot you have to get, though) However, if the PH is acidic enough (I can never remember if higher is more acidic or if it's the opposite!) you don't need to worry about botulism, specifically. Ah, I looked it up. If the PH is less than 4.6, botulism can't grow. Garlic has a PH of 5.8 (Thank you, USDA!) so you should be careful. Worth doing some reading on how risky the practice of storing it in the fridge is.
 
HalfPint January 29, 2016
@OdaO, best to be cautious with all uncooked plants. You can kill botulism spores with acid or heat. So cooking or storing in vinegar (or lemon juice) would kill the spores (actually the acid would stop the spore germination). But when you store in oil, the spores are still 'alive' (dormant, but alive) and even though there is no oxygen, those pesky botulism spores can grow in the absence of oxygen (i.e. anaerobic conditions). It doesn't matter how clean the container is, the spores are attached to the garlic (which is raw and not stored in an acidic solution). I don't recommend storing your garlic mixture too long in the fridge. Best to consume quickly (maybe 2 weeks tops) and make a fresh batch regularly if you use it often. Here's a great guide with explanations about botulism control, http://www.nwedible.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/botulism3.pdf
 
OdaO January 29, 2016
I cannot thank you enough, tia and HP. Bless you for letting me and others into this important knowledge. This link went straight to my printer, to be shared with many.<br />Will definitely make smaller batches, and really start pickling stuff too, as I have intended for a long time. <3
 
tia January 29, 2016
Heads up, cooking at normal temps isn't enough to kill botulism. I think it grows slowly though; I've only ever heard it discussed as a risk in home canning and infused oils.
 
tia January 29, 2016
Pickling is super fun and it's easy. Worth picking up even aside from worries about botulism!
 
HalfPint January 29, 2016
Home canning using the boiling water method will not kill botulism because the temperature only goes up to 212F, but pressure canning will, since the temperature can go up to ~240F. Normal cooking temps (like frying, baking) can easily exceed 300F, so there's no worry that the botulism won't be killed off.<br />
 
Author Comment
Leslie S. February 22, 2016
Loved all of your questions about botulism and realized how important it is to address them! Interviewed some experts about it to put together a guide: https://food52.com/blog/15869-everything-you-need-to-know-about-botulism
 
Mrs B. April 14, 2016
I just posted a Hotline question about this recipe, regarding botulism and the recommendation that this quart of XO sauce be used within 2 weeks.