XO Sauce XO醬
Walk down a Chinese market aisle and you’ll find an overwhelming display of sauces and condiments. But one that truly stands out and now even transcends its place in Chinese restaurants is the richly flavored XO Sauce. Although categorized as a barbecue sauce, the name is far too limiting, as it adds true depth to a wealth of dishes beyond just barbecue. Restaurants like the high-end Benu in San Francisco to Central Provisions in Portland, Maine have even boldly created their versions of it within a dish.
XO Sauce is not made with cognac or has any relation to the “extra old” designation, as the name implies. The closest semblance to either is the Chinese association of the sauce with high quality and prestige. In fact, many brands even use likenesses of the well-known liquor in the labeling. But the fact of the matter is that the sauce contains a seriously expensive ingredient –dried scallops, which can cost upwards of $100 per pound. Other components may include dried shrimp and Chinese ham, but garlic, shallots, chilies and a hint of sugar are usually present, further contributing to the complexity of flavor.
Dried Scallops are the “main” XO ingredient
Shacha Sauce, a similar condiment popular in the Fujian province, Teochew, and Taiwan, contains all the same ingredients in varying amounts, but excludes the dried scallop. Other renditions may include abalone, radish, or black beans. Even vegetarian options are now offered in markets.
Whereas most Chinese sauces seem to have been created at least a few thousand years ago, XO sauce was only first introduced in Hong Kong in the early 1980’s when restaurants began making the full-flavored ingredient in-house. These days, it can be made from scratch fairly easily aside from the expensive key ingredient, or bought prepared with prices ranging from $2-$15, of course depending on the quality and ingredients used.
There are a variety of uses for the chunky sauce that borders on a paste in its consistency. When flash fried with green beans, it takes a simple vegetable dish to a whole other level. Mixed with other sauces, it creates a delicious condiment or dip for dumplings and hot pots. It is often found tossed with noodles as well. More popular offerings at restaurants include XO Sauce paired with fried lobster or other seafood, or sautéed with beef. The mingling of concentrated seafood and pork flavors makes this special sauce perfect for equally intensifying seafood or meat focused dishes. But with its versatility and flavor that is delicate yet bold, it could honestly enhance any given dish.