Pantry Basics: Homemade XO Sauce

Homemade XO sauce

Homemade XO sauce

I’d never really thought about making XO sauce—a deliciously spicy and umami condiment that first gained popularity in Hong Kong in the Eighties—in the past because the process seemed mysteriously complex. Generally consisting of dried scallops and shrimp paired with chillies, and a blend of shallots and garlic, the recipe for most signature XO sauces served at famous Chinese restaurants are closely guarded. CH and I love the XO sauce from The Peninsula Hong Kong (Spring Moon, the Chinese restaurant at The Pen is often credited with creating the very first XO sauce), as well as Chef Yong Bing Ngen’s elegant version at The New Majestic. And while we’ve never bought XO sauce for ourselves, we’ve always hoarded the ones we received as gifts. Even when served sparingly, it elevates the simplest dishes to something exceptional.

It was only when I read my sister-in-law J’s generously precise recipe for her irresistible homemade XO sauce (she had served the pasta dish pictured as part of a lavish birthday spread for me) that I was inspired to make my own. Since reading her post, I’ve carried her recipe in my Blackberry in the hope of finding an opportune moment to gather the requisite ingredients. Well, I finally attempted J’s recipe for XO sauce a few weeks back because I wanted to present the many new friends we were planning to meet in Japan with something homemade. While it was time-consuming to prepare, making the XO sauce wasn’t too difficult. It goes without saying that we love the fact that J uses bacon in place of traditional Jinhua ham in her XO sauce. She also calls for a fair bit more sugar than most other recipes I’ve seen. The resulting XO sauce deftly balances the intense sea-saltiness that we prize in our dried seafood with gentle heat and a nice hit of sweetness that rounds out its umami flavour. To enjoy the XO sauce with gyoza, we heated it with a little soy sauce and fiery nama shichimi (生七味) just before we served it. Some chilli oil with soy sauce or salt would also do the trick. A generous portion of the XO sauce tossed into fried rice towards the final stages of frying also perked up the already delicious dish quite dramatically.

Homemade XO sauce

We’ve noticed that at really good Chinese restaurants, they fry their XO sauce just before serving it, giving it a nice veneer of crispness. We’ve taken to doing the same. And J’s XO sauce works wonderfully well when treated as an exceptional base that can be finely calibrated with a smidgen of extra spice or a tiny dash of savouriness depending on what we’d like to serve it with. Her XO sauce recipe is a real keeper. It’s a family secret I thought I ought to share.

About Su-Lyn Tan

Su-Lyn is Aun's better half and for many years, the secret Editor behind this blog known to readers simply as S. Su-Lyn is an obsessive cook and critical eater whose two favourite pastimes are spending time with her three kids and spending time in the kitchen. She looks forward to combining the two in the years to come.