Developed in the 1980s in Hong Kong for Cantonese cuisine, XO sauce is made of roughly chopped dried seafoods (including scallops and shrimp), and subsequently cooked with chili peppers, onions, and garlic.
This deliciously spicy dried seafood-based sauce bears similarity to the Fujianese Shacha sauce. Spring Moon, the Hotel Peninsula Hong Kong’s Chinese restaurant, is often credited with the invention of XO sauce.
The name XO sauce comes from fine XO (extra-old) cognac, which is a popular Western liquor in Hong Kong and considered by many to be a chic product there. In addition, the term XO is often used in the popular culture of Hong Kong to denote high quality, prestige and luxury. In fact, XO sauce has been marketed in the same manner as the French liquor, using packaging of similar colour schemes.
XO sauce can be used as a condiment on the side of main dishes or used in cooking to enhance the flavor of fish, meats, vegetables, and otherwise bland foods such as tofu or noodles. Home cooks often use this sauce as the chief flavor enhancer for fried rice.
My version of XO sauce is relentlessly traditional and authentic, based closely on a recipe from Australian chef Tony Tam. I’ve added some shaoxing rice wine and ginger to the original recipe – I hope you enjoy this most umami of spicy condiments, my Citizens!
Battle on – The Generalissimo
25 gm dried scallops
75 gm dried prawns
250 ml (1 cup) vegetable oil, or just enough to cover all the ingredients
75 gm garlic (about 20 cloves), finely chopped
75 gm red shallots (about 6), finely chopped
50 gm Virginia ham or prosciutto cut in a single slice, finely shredded
25 gm fresh long red chilis (about 6), seeded and finely chopped
10 grams peeled and minced ginger
15 gm dried long red chilis, seeded, soaked and finely chopped
7 gm dried birdseye chilis, finely chopped
5 gm Malaysian-style shrimp paste (aka belacan; be sure to roast before using!)
2 tbsp dried shrimp roe, crumbled (available in many Chinese grocery stores; optional)
15 gm sugar, or to taste
Roast shrimp paste: wrap it in aluminum foil and roast at 200C until fragrant (4-5 minutes).
Soak dried scallops and dried prawns separately in 125ml (½ cup) hot water mixed with ¼ cup shaoxing wine until plump (preferably overnight).
Drain scallops (reserve soaking water), tear them into fine shreds, pat dry on absorbent paper and set aside. Drain prawns (reserve water), chop them finely and set aside.
Heat half the oil in a wok or large saucepan over medium-high heat, add scallops and deep-fry until very crisp (1-2 minutes; cover with lid as they may spit). Drain well, reserve oil. Wipe out wok with absorbent paper, add reserved oil and remaining oil and return to medium heat.
Add garlic, shallots and dried prawns and stir continuously until golden brown (4-5 minutes).
Add jamón, fresh chili and dried chili, fry for a few seconds (be careful, it may burn easily), then add shrimp paste, fried scallops and reserved scallop and prawn water and stir continuously for a few more seconds.
Add remaining ingredients and a pinch of salt and stir occasionally until fragrant and water has completely evaporated (20-30 minutes).
Remove from heat, strain (reserve oil), transfer solids to a sterile jar, then pour in enough reserved oil to cover. XO sauce will keep refrigerated in a sealed container for 1 month.