XO Sauce is one of those quirky, strange Chinese sauces; no one really knows what it’s made of. The seafood-based sauce was created in Hong Kong in the 80s and called XO sauce to make it sound prestigious and exclusive, like XO (extra-old) cognac. Cognac is super popular with Asian people; they love giving it to each other as gifts, but a lot of the time the bottles just end up gathering dust or getting dusted off and re-gifted.
Mike: What’s it stand for?
Me: XO, like cognac, you know?
Mike: Oh, is there cognac in it?
Mike: Does it smell like cognac?
Mike: I’m confused.
XO is supposed to denote quality and luxury and Chinese people love it because if you own something that is luxurious, it means that you are luxurious. We are a superstitious bunch. We’re so superstitious that we adopt other cultures’ superstitions, like unlucky number 13. Most of the buildings in the part of Vancouver I live in are built by a Hong Kong backed company and don’t have a 13th floor in addition to not having any 4s (unlucky because in Chinese it sounds like “death”) anywhere in their buildings. People are always impressed by how many floors are in these buildings until you point out to them that 12th floor goes straight to 15th floor.
Personally, I’ve never really understood the appeal of XO sauce, but for as long as I remember, my dad has loved it and regularly orders dishes at dim sum that have XO in it. I think I must have never tasted the good stuff because when I tried Chang’s version, I was blown away.
The sauce is made from dried scallops, dried shrimps, garlic, ginger, Chinese sausage, crushed dried red chili and oil.
You can find dried scallops and shrimps at a Chinese dry goods store. I bought mine from some friendly ladies who were super accommodating even though I bought such a small amount.
The night before you want to make your sauce you have to re-hydrate your shrimp and scallops by covering them with water. If you’re not a big fan of the smell of the ocean, make sure your cover your container with plastic wrap because the scallops and shrimps are pretty pungent.
The next day, all the ingredients are minced up and then fried over low heat for 45 minutes. The sauce, which is really a dry, flaky paste, bubbles and toasts to a rich, mahogany brown when done.
Cooking the sauce for almost an hour gives the ingredients time to combine into a complex, intensely layered, quietly spicy, ocean flavour. It’s addictive and I think I ate at least a tablespoon of it while I was cooking.
After the sauce is done cooking you can refrigerate it forever or use it right away. I made some sugar snap peas: peas were blanched and split, tossed in hot oil with 2-3 tablespoons of XO, a splash of soy and a bit of butter. The peas were sweet and the XO was slightly spicy and super savoury. These sugar snap peas would have been great with rice.
While we were eating Mike told me that he could easily become a vegetarian if all vegetables tasted like this. I didn’t want to break it to him about the shrimp and scallops. Guess he’ll just have to be a pescetarian.
Note: This is a impressive sauce to put in a jar give as a gift. If you give it to someone Chinese, most likely, they’ll love it and unlike a present of XO cognac, they’ll actually make use of it. I gave my mom a jar and she was suitably impressed.