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XO sauce is the king of condiments

But what is it really?

XO sauce is the king of condiments

Want to up your condiments game? On the prowl for the ultimate flavour-bomb ingredient? I hear you my friends, so I’m going to spill the tea on one of my fave ways to give any dish a major kick in the flavour department. XO sauce! I LOVE this stuff. It’s sticky, it’s jammy, it’s sweet-savoury, it’s packed with umami… I’m telling you, there’s nothing like it. And you need it in your life.

If you’ve never really used XO sauce before, or are a bit confused about it, I promise you’ll be busting to make a batch by the time we’re finished talking about it here. (And I have a killer recipe too).

What actually is XO sauce?

What is XO sauce

XO sauce was first developed in Hong Kong in the 1980’s, probably in the kitchen of Spring Moon at the Peninsula hotel (although other restaurants have tried to muscle in on the XO origin story, so who really knows). The name is actually a reference to XO (‘extra old’) French cognac, a super-expensive drink that gives you lots of status in HK and the reference is because XO sauce contains boujee ingredients, not because it contains cognac. Which, I know. It’s confusing. And it’s not even really a sauce in the traditional sense either; XO sauce has more the consistency of a thick, sticky marmalade.

So, what’s actually in XO sauce? A whole pile of good stuff, basically! Like dried scallops, dried shrimp and sometimes dried abalone, salty pork and aromatics of the garlic, shallots and chilli ilk. There’s saltiness from soy, sweetness from sugar, the richness of shaoxing wine, and a deeply savoury edge from the dried seafood. Once the main ingredients are finely chopped, everything is cooked together in oil in a wok to make things nice and crispy, then the liquid elements are added and the sauce simmers until it slowly reduces down to the correct sticky texture. The end result is a gorgeous balance of smoky, salty, sweet and umami flavours.

I can’t find some of the ingredients? Can I switch them out?

What is XO sauce

As mentioned, XO sauce uses some premium ingredients, and a few of these can be hard to get. For example, XO sauce should be made using artisanal Jinhua ham from Zhejiang Province in China but because of import laws, this is almost impossible to find outside of Asia. In place of Jinhua ham we use smoky bacon, for the right salty pork flavour and subtle smokiness of a good XO sauce. But either Spanish jamón or prosciutto also work well. 

Arguably the most important ingredients in XO sauce are the dried scallops (also called conpoy)  and the dried shrimp. Dried scallops in particular can be really expensive, and this comes down to their grade; small, lesser quality ones are cheaper and you can use these if you like as let’s face it; by the time they’re shredded up and cooked into the sauce, no one will know what you’ve used. Both the scallops and prawns are crucial to the flavour of the sauce so you can’t leave them out; if you don’t have a good Asian grocer near you, there are sites online where you can order dried seafood. My recipe only needs 60g of each so it’s not like you have to buy tons. All the other ingredients are commonly available; my recipe contains chillies, chilli powder, garlic, sugar, oil, shaoxing wine, soy sauces and oyster sauce.

How do I use XO sauce?

Honestly? I put XO sauce in everything. It’s great in stir-fries and soups, it elevates noodle dishes, it’s great with eggs, I love it through fried rice and I even use it on plain steamed rice for a salty, umami hit. It works great with steamed fish and adds an edge to dumpling dipping sauces.I’ve been known to spoon it over sub-par takeaways to zhuzh them up a bit. XO elevates any dish that leans Southern Chinese and you don’t need to use much, either. In fact you shouldn’t use much as the flavours are really intense and could easily overpower. Once you become familiar with its amazing characteristics, you’ll get more confident about using it as the mood strikes you. And that mood strikes me all. the. time.

Where can I buy XO sauce? Do I need to make it?

What is XO sauce

My version is reasonably fast to make as I use my food processor; making XO sauce by hand is laborious as everything needs to be very finely chopped. But if you can’t be bothered making your own, then by all means buy some. You’ll find XO sauce in jars at your Asian grocer or even in the Asian section of a regular supermarket and there are quite a few brands. Nothing’s as good as home made though so I hope you give the recipe a go.

Fridge or pantry? How do I store XO sauce?

The best way to store home-made XO sauce is in a sterilised jar with a tight-fitting lid in the fridge; not in plastic because it could taint and stain plastic. Use our sauce up within a few months as the flavour will be the best although honestly, I’ve never actually put that to the test. XO sauce doesn’t last that long in my house! Purchased XO sauce will have storage instructions on the jar but most likely will need refrigerating after opening.

Is there a vegetarian substitute for XO sauce?

XO sauce’s signature flavour comes from dried scallops, dried shrimp and the smoky pork, but you can get vegetarian versions. There are normally two types of vego-friendly XO sauce – a mushroom based version and a soybean based one. Both chock full of umami, they’re perfect if you want all those incredible XO sauce vibes, but minus any animal products.

Try XO sauce on these recipes!

Marion's Kitchen is for everyone who finds joy in flavour and happiness in every bite. Marion's Kitchen is for everyone who finds joy in flavour and happiness in every bite.

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