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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.
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.
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.
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.
- 1/3 cup sardines, chopped
- 1/3 cup anchovies, chopped
- 1/2 cup Chinese lap cheong sausage, chopped
- 1/2 cup Chinese Jinhua ham, prosciutto, or bacon, chopped
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 2 shallots, minced (but not too finely)*
- 1/8 cup crushed red pepper flakes*
- 1/4 cup garlic, minced (but not finely)
- 1/4 cup ginger, peeled and minced (but not too finely)
- 1 tablespoon Chinese five spice powder
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- *A larger mince will help prevent the ingredient from burning.
- *You can adjust this depending on your preferred spice level.
Shrimp & Grits
- 3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
- 1 cup white-corn grits
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 1 tablespoon butter
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 20 shrimp, peeled and deveined
- Salt and pepper
- 5 tablespoons XO sauce, plus more for topping
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
How do you enjoy XO sauce? Let us know in the comments!