The *Very* Fancy Cantonese Sauce Chefs Adore, Home Cook-ified

March 22, 2018

There are condiments, and then there’s XO sauce. It may not be a household name like Sriracha, but those who are familiar with the Chinese condiment revere it as much as college students like squeezing the rooster. Even the name, inadvertently suggestive of intimate affairs, is alluring.

Like a Mellon or Rockefeller, XO sauce was born into immediate aristocracy. It was allegedly created at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong during the 1980s, when someone in the kitchen, feeling inventive, decided to mix leftover luxury ingredients like dried scallops and dried shrimp into a chunky condiment. To match its elite pedigree, XO sauce was named after extra old, or “XO,” cognac, a status-defining drink of choice in Hong Kong’s affluent circles.

XO sauce goes well with soft, coconutty grits. Photo by Rocky Luten

Like most luxury foods, XO sauce is a chef favorite, but unlike truffles or caviar, which come ready to eat, it requires a lengthy and labor-intensive cooking process, perhaps inspiring even more reverence from chefs. And like pasta sauce, XO sauce welcomes interpretation, resulting in countless iterations of which no two are alike. However, most jars will contain the staple ingredients of dried scallops, dried shrimp, Jinhua ham (Chinese prosciutto), shallots, garlic, red chili flakes, and soy sauce.

Shop the Story

A typical XO sauce can have more than a dozen ingredients, and can easily take eight hours to make. Efficiency-loving, budget-friendly, fuss-averse cook that I am, I hacked a traditional recipe for XO sauce and came up with an easier, less expensive version of my own that still captures the luscious flavors of the original, minus any need to rehydrate shellfish.

Efficiency-loving and budget-friendly cook that I am, I make a less expensive version.

Not many Americans have easy access to specialty ingredients like dried scallops or dried shrimp, so I substituted those for grocery staples like sardines and anchovies. And instead of frying every component individually, I fry them all together in stages, so certain ingredients don’t burn. Instead of taking all day, my version takes about one and a half hours, and still tastes just as alluring as any traditional recipe.

You can put XO sauce on just about anything, from noodles to scrambled eggs, but I decided to try it on traditional shrimp and grits and was astounded by how well it all works together. The creamy grits are a perfect counterbalance to the umami-rich XO sauce. You can use traditional cream to make the grits, but I chose coconut milk to keep the dish from being too heavy—plus, it is another nod in the Asian direction. I have an aversion to combining two disparate cuisines together for the sake of fusion, but when it makes sense, it’s like discovering new territory. At least, that’s how I felt the first time I tucked into a bowl of these XO shrimp and grits.

How do you enjoy XO sauce? Let us know in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • HalfPint
  • Jane Dough
    Jane Dough
  • Sarah Wong
    Sarah Wong
  • Noreen Fish
    Noreen Fish
Freelance writer, recipe developer, food blogger, and creator of the Pizzafy app. Follow my food adventures on and Instagram: @aiya_kitchen.


HalfPint March 26, 2018
I use the Grubstreet XO sauce recipe and it does not take half a day to make and it makes a ton (a full quart+). Love to add a dollop to my simple fried rice. And if I'm feeling especially tired or lazy, I add a tablespoon to a bowl of hot cooked rice and top with a sunny-side up egg.
Jane D. March 25, 2018
5-spice powder is already sweet with its star anise, cinnamon stick and cloves which are all "sweet" spices... so to put in more cinnamon AND brown sugar will, imho, make it too sweet. i have a little jar i purchased online in my fridge right now and it is much more savory than sweet... in fact, there is only a hint of sweetness. i will probably try this since XO sauce is so spendy, but i'll be leaving out the extra cinnamon and brown sugar.
also, just a pet peeve... when a recipe calls for an ingredient that you don't have and you use something else in its place... you have SUBSTITUTED YOUR INGREDIENT FOR THE ORIGINAL INGREDIENT, not the other way around. to put it in understandable terms from the classroom, when a different teacher comes in to take the regular teacher's place, the new teacher is the substitute for the regular teacher.
the way you have it written, the original ingredient is substituted for the new ingredient, which is exactly backwards and makes it very hard to understand what you're actually doing in the recipe.
Sarah W. March 25, 2018
I'm not sure how this recipe will taste like but the real XO sauce uses dried scallops (could be up to $120 per pound) and dried shrimp. I am not sure about using cinnamon either.
Noreen F. March 22, 2018
I bought a jar of XO sauce at the HMart in Naperville, IL last year. I've mostly added it to stir-fries, but while I love the flavor, I don't love the little chewy bits from the dried seafood. When there was only a little bit left in the jar, I put in a couple of tablespoons of broth and shook it up, then strained out the solids, and I liked that much better.