XO Sauce with Sugar Snap Peas

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?
Me: No.
Mike: Does it smell like cognac?
Me: No.
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.

19 Comments add yours

  1. That’s what I loved about V-town, the refreshing smell of the ocean! Question: Do pescatarians eat scallops? I know they only eat fish… are scallops.. fish?

    Haha, no, scallops aren’t fish, but apparently pescatarians eat shellfish. I wouldn’t know,I eat everything!

    steph on March 3rd, 2010 at 12:46 pm
  2. actually i would make use of a bottle of a nice xo cognac. just saying (;

    Me too!

    steph on March 3rd, 2010 at 12:47 pm
  3. You made your own XO sauce??!! For real? This is a whole new level.

    Even my mom was like, you made XO sauce? Surprisingly, it was pretty easy. Then again, it’s pretty easy to buy a jar too!

    steph on March 3rd, 2010 at 12:51 pm
  4. Wow, that looks AWESOME! How much of each ingredient do you put?

    Equal parts dried scallops, dried shrimps, garlic, ginger, oil and two parts Chinese sausage. Add crushed dried red chili to taste.

    Thanks Steph! I love your blog – the pics and the food look amazing.

    No worries Mei! Let me know if you try making the sauce!

    steph on March 4th, 2010 at 6:28 pm
    Mei on March 4th, 2010 at 8:26 am
    steph on March 3rd, 2010 at 9:39 pm
  5. Does XO sauce keep for very long in fridge?

    It keeps forever! Well, a very very long time at least!

    steph on March 6th, 2010 at 2:26 pm
  6. please pass a jar my way for x’mas or birthdays.=D

    One jar of XO sauce on your birthday coming right up!

    steph on March 19th, 2010 at 10:51 pm
  7. Chang’s recipe for this sauce is super easy, but the country ham (AKA Virginia ham) he mentions on the West Coast is not. I found that speck is much more abundant and being a smoked prosciutto makes a great substitute. Haven’t made this with the Chinese sausage but it’s amazing with the ham. The flavor hits your mouth in 4 stages – first it’s nutty/fishy, then salty, then hammy, then trailing off into garlic/ginger. I keep eating it with a spoon. Same thing I did with all my bacon jam.

    I have yet to find country ham or anyone who knows what country ham is here on the West Coast. The sauce with Chinese sausage is super-yum though!

    steph on April 24th, 2010 at 1:44 pm
  8. Hey there,

    Where did you get your dried scallops? I live in eastern Washington but I make trips to Seattle to go ingredient hunting whenever possible. Do recommend any online purveyors?

    Joshua Jackman on June 13, 2011 at 3:38 am
  9. Country ham is readily available in Metro Vancouver BC but as chinese or yunnan ham sometimes it is labelled smithfield ham. It comes dried and in vacuum packed slices. Try T&T stores.

    Eric Urquhart on March 15, 2012 at 2:18 pm
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