XO sauce is an exotic condiment that was created at one of Hong Kong's high-end dining establishments in the early 1980s. Legend has it, a cook at the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon developed the sauce and named it after the pricy drink-of-the-moment, XO cognac. It is a chunky combination of dried seafood and Chinese aged ham, as well as other seasonings. It quickly became a hit, and today it appears in restaurant kitchens across North America. XO sauce is more than a table condiment, however. Its complex flavor is used to enhance stir-fried meat, seafood, tofu, and vegetables, as well as noodle dishes.
Shelf life: 2 years
Place of origin: Hong Kong
Common use: condiment
What Is XO Sauce?
XO sauce has become a staple in southern Cantonese cooking, particularly in Hong Kong and Guangdong province. Although the sauce is named after the popular and expensive cognac XO, the liquor is not part of the recipe. In Hong Kong, the term XO is slang for something that is high quality and considered a luxury; XO sauce has even been nicknamed "caviar of the Orient."
The recipe can take several hours to make and calls for costly ingredients, like dried shrimp, dried scallops, and Jinhua ham. For this reason, XO sauce is expensive. The dried seafood and cured ham are finely chopped and blended with other ingredients (garlic, ginger, fresh and/or dried chiles, brown sugar, soy sauce, and sometimes other spices) into a chunky jamlike consistency.
How to Cook With XO Sauce
Considering its unique and profound flavor, XO sauce will elevate any dish to a whole new level. It should be used sparingly, as a little goes a long way. Use a tablespoon or so to top roasted vegetables and grilled meats, cooked noodles, and fried rice, and steamed fish and pork ribs.
XO sauce can also be incorporated into the recipe itself. Stir-fried lobster and vermicelli with XO sauce are on the menu at the Dynasty Restaurant in Green Brook, New Jersey, while chefs at Tokyo's Park Hyatt Hotel have decided XO sauce is the perfect accompaniment for stir-fried noodles with chicken and shrimp.
What Does It Taste Like?
XO sauce is full of flavor, mainly due to the concentrated taste of the dried seafood. It offers some spice along with the rich taste of umami and is an amalgamation of flavors, including sweet, smoky, and salty. This is a condiment that will dominate a dish with its intense taste.
XO Sauce Recipes
Where to Buy XO Sauce
It used to be that you needed to go to a fine Chinese restaurant to enjoy XO sauce. But now there are a few brands of jarred sauce, including Lee Kum Kee and Morning Sky, available online and at Asian food markets. Expect to pay at least 10 times more than soy sauce.
More adventurous cooks can make their own—just keep in mind that Jinhua ham cannot be imported, so you must substitute with another type of cured ham, such as prosciutto. Since the ingredients in XO sauce are rather expensive, the most economical approach is to buy in bulk and make up more than one batch at a time. Then divide into jars and store in the refrigerator until ready to use. Recipes for XO sauce will differ but will always include the dried shrimp and scallops.
XO sauce should be kept in the jar and stored in the refrigerator where it will keep for about two years.
Nutrition and Benefits
XO sauce isn't necessarily healthy, but considering a very small amount is consumed, it isn't something that should cause concern for most people. For those watching their salt intake, however, it is best to use XO sauce sparingly because it is high in sodium. XO sauce has 8 grams of fat in a 1-tablespoon serving but boasts 3 grams of protein.