What is XO sauce, why is it called that and how do you use it? Read on to find out about this decadently rich Chinese seafood sauce.
The very richly flavored, and rather expensive Chinese product known as XO Sauce, has only been around since the early 1980’s. One occasionally sees it as a component in dishes on Chinese restaurant menus, or, somewhat less frequently, appearing as a dipping sauce for some foods. If you haven’t tried it yet, it is well-worth investigating. Afterwards, you may very well wish to have it as an addition to your pantry
What is XO Sauce?
This interesting product could be described as a ‘Seafood Sauce’, in one sense. Not because it is limited to being used with seafood, but rather because the dominant, and most expensive ingredients which give the sauce its unique flavor are umami-rich marine products.
Essentially, an XO Sauce will contain Dried Shrimp and the Dried Scallops known as Conpoy. Occasionally, Dried Abalone (or Abalone extract) will be included), as will plain Dried Fish, or Even Dried Squid. One other dried ingredient used for its umami quotient is the Chinese specialty Jinhua Ham. Other good quality dry-cured hams could be used and some brands will substitute this with Chinese Sausage.
Beyond the foregoing ingredients, typical additions are Garlic, Shallots (or Onions), Chili in smaller or larger amounts, Shaoxing Wine, Soy Sauce, Oyster Sauce, and even Fish Sauce. Sugar is a regular addition, and while this can be used sparingly, some varieties of XO Sauce are very sweet, even to the point of being cloying.
Why is it called XO Sauce?
When I first came across this product, I had no idea how to pronounce the ‘XO’. It turns out though, that this not a name, or a word, but individually pronounced letters (as in ‘EKS-OH’). The use of the letters derives from XO (extra old) Cognac, which was something of a chic fashion for a time, especially in Hong Kong, where XO sauce was first created. The name is, one presumes, supposed to lend the sauce the same sort of cachet as very fine (and expensive) aged Brandy.
What does XO Sauce Taste Like?
The short answer is that, basically, XO Sauce taste primarily of dried seafood, with the sweetness and umami levels of these depending on the type and quality used. The sauce will typically balance the flavors of sweetness, saltiness, and umami, with a little chili heat, but the balance, and the overall taste and texture will vary considerably from brand to brand.
The two varieties of XO Sauce you see above are both produced by Kei Cheong Foods Ltd. Of Hong Kong and the difference between the two is that the right hand one, packaged in the brown box, describes itself as ‘Abalone XO Sauce’ (presumably, one would assume, because it contains Dried Abalone). It doesn’t, actually, but examining both of these types together can help illustrate some of characteristics and qualities of a decent product.
Here is the ‘plain’ XO Sauce. The solid ingredients (listed in order of quantity), include dried scallop, garlic, shallot, dried shrimp, sugar and chili. The primary ingredient is the oil in which the other ingredients are cooked and packed and, in a good quality product, the oil should develop all the best flavors of the other delicacies.
One characteristic of a given XO Sauce is what might be termed its ‘chunkiness’. Some, like this one, will have the solid components clearly distinguishable to a greater or lesser degree, whilst others will present a much smoother, more homogenous texture. This will make only a moderate difference to taste but may determine whether a sauce is better used as an ‘ingredient’ as opposed to, say, a dipping sauce.
Both the sugar and chili are used quite sparingly in this particular product. The front of the box actually uses Chinese characters to specify ‘Mild Heat’, but the paucity of chili pieces is also apparent on visual inspection. Some sauces are quite hot, whilst others not so much and this is true of the sweetness level as well. Personally, I find that many XO Sauces are cloyingly sweet and I always suspect that a lot of sugar is being used to hide poor quality scallop and shrimp.
The ‘Abalone’ version turns out to be not very much different that the plain sort except that it has a bit more chili heat and has a darker appearance from the added chili flakes. As for the abalone itself, it turns out to be ‘Abalone Extract’ and is listed between sugar and chili on the label meaning that it is used sparingly. Indeed, I can detect no abalone flavor here at all and the only other difference (other than chili heat) is that this version has a slightly chewier texture.
Texture, by the way, is one of the characteristics that can dictate the quality, or at least the versatility of a given brand. If a blend contains overly hard or chewy chunks, it may still be useful as an ingredient in a dish requiring further cooking but might be less attractive as a condiment. Individual preferences will vary a bit, of course, but few will want spoon anything with a tough, gritty texture over nice, soft dumplings, for example.
How do you Use XO Sauce?
As I have indicated already, XO Sauces are commonly used as a condiment, perhaps as a dipping sauce, or possibly even as a topping for noodles along with such other things as chopped scallions, peanuts or beansprouts. One can also cook with them as well and they are often used to enhance otherwise bland or unexciting items such as steamed green beans, or tofu, for example.
In the above dish of Flash-fried Broccolini in XO Sauce, Broccolini, which could be replaced with Gai Lan, Asparagus, or other green vegetable, is stir-fried with XO Sauce diluted with a little Rice Wine being added just at the end.
XO Sauce can simply be added as a condiment to noodles or rice at the table, but in the above dish, XO Sauce is stirred into the rice along with other ingredients while frying to turn a simple dish into something much more special.
The Scallops Grilled at The Claddagh House in Charlottetown, PEI, were enhanced by XO Sauce and a Basic Chili Oil. What made this dish especially interesting was that the XO Sauce was not a commercial brand, but was made the Chef himself.