Preparation info

  • Makes

    5½ cups

    (The Recipe may be Halved)
    • Difficulty

      Easy

Appears in

Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking

By Eileen Yin-Fei Lo

Published 2009

  • About

Chinese restaurant chefs occasionally delight in mystery. You need only look in some restaurants at the wall posters full of Chinese writing, detailing dishes that chefs believe no Westerner would be interested in eating. One of the most recent exercises in restaurant mystery surfaced in Hong Kong less than a decade ago, when small dishes of a spicy, pungent, oily paste that had been placed on restaurant tables for years began to attain culinary status and to attract attention. It was called XO sauce, its name presumably borrowed from the expensive XO-grade cognac popular in Hong Kong. I first tried this textured hot condiment years ago when a tiny dish of it was served at the beginning of a restaurant meal. It was delicious: salty, hot, and tasting of chiles, dried seafood, and cured ham. When I asked the captain what it was, he said simply, “XO.” And from what is it made? “That, ” he replied, “is the chef‛s secret.”

I moved the small shards of food around with my chopsticks and kept tasting. In addition to the hotness of chiles, I detected peanut oil, dried scallops and shrimp, garlic and shallots, Yunnan ham, and shrimp roe. I noted these to the captain, who congratulated me, but smiled and said, “Ah, but you do not know how it is made.” It made me determined to uncover the mystery of XO sauce. This first taste was followed by many others, as the fad swept through the kitchens of Hong Kong‛s Chinese restaurants. Soon, restaurants were putting the sauce into decorated jars and boxing them as gifts for sale. And always when I asked how the sauce was made, the answer remained the same: “It is a secret.”

My first gift jar was not a mystery, for the ingredients were listed in both English and Chinese on the label, and they confirmed what I had detected in my first tasting. Jars from other restaurants contained the same ingredients and sometimes also included such flavorings as sugar, salted fish, soy sauce, and sesame oil. But the basics were the same, so how the sauce was cooked became the mystery. I resolved to decipher the secret, and over the next several months I made batch after batch of XO sauce. My refrigerator shelves were lined with bottles labeled “XO 1, ” “XO 2, ” and so on, and my grocery bills went skyward with the recurring purchase of the very expensive dried scallops, dried shrimp, and shrimp roe, not to mention bags and bags of chiles.

Eventually, I solved the mystery. This recipe produces an XO sauce that is as good as you will get anywhere, I promise. This fine, versatile concoction can be eaten alone, served as an introduction to a meal, eaten with other foods, or used as an ingredient in cooking. Enjoy the mystery.