If a jar of XO sauce is not already a permanent fixture in your fridge, it really should be. You will often find XO on the shelves behind the cashiers in the supermarket (that is how you know it is fancy) and although not cheap for a condiment, it has the power to elevate anything it touches. We dug into its history for a little extra insight into the staple sauce and Cantonese cooking’s secret weapon.
It is named rather curiously after extra-old (hence XO) cognac, which gets even stranger when you come to find out that the recipe does not actually contain any liquor… Back in the ‘80s when XO was invented, cognac was just a chic product and so the name was chosen to impress so that you knew this was not just a regular sauce but a prestigious, luxury sauce. Except that also, it is not really a sauce at all, at least not in the traditional sense. XO is chunky, more like a relish of roughly chopped, dried (and expensive) seafoods like scallops, fish and shrimps and dried ham, which is all cooked with garlic and chilli for zing. Savoury, a little smoky, a little spicy, this flavour enhancer is almost the definition of umami, goes with basically everything and has been described as ‘the caviar of the East’, which might be why high-end Cantonese restaurants like to serve it just the same as dai pai dongs.
If you have embraced cooking from scratch during this time of Covid, you can do as our Chef Jowett Yu of Ho Lee Fook does and make your own (try his pescatarian-friendly XO in Ho Lee Fook’s Wok-fried Cheong Fun). There are lots of recipes online and you can find all the dried seafood you need around Wing Lok Street in Sheung Wan, or along aptly named Dried Seafood Street (Des Voeux Road West) in Sai Ying Pun. Otherwise, you can find XO sauce in pretty much any Hong Kong supermarket; Chef Jow rates the Dashije brand, or for the OG XO, you can head to Spring Moon in the Peninsula Hotel where most people believe the sauce was invented. How you use it is up to you, but we find a generous spoonful levels up anything from fried rice and broccoli, to 2am instant noodles and chicken wings. Chef Fuschia Dunlop likes hers with a poached egg for a quick and, let’s be honest, pretty baller way to start the day, evident on her social media with posts like this that will make you want to get out of bed and hit the kitchen. No judgement here if food is your reason to wake up.
Traditional, dynamic and filled with a little mystery, we rate XO is the thing everyone deserves to know, to love and to keep in case of culinary emergencies. From fine-dining to corner shops, it truly is an all-in-one flavour experience.
How do you XO?