The first time I tried XO Sauce at a Chinese restaurant during dim-sum, I was wondering what the heck the “XO” meant. Could it mean it’s so good you’ll get “Hugs & Kisses”? nah. I knew XO sauce was expensive owing to its costly primary ingredient: dried scallops (conpoy). Initially, I didn’t know the name derived from its link to the premium XO Brandy. In fact, there isn’t any XO Brandy in any version of XO Sauce I’ve tried. “XO” seems to allude to its expense and its deliciousness. All the ingredients in the sauce are of a premium quality and special in this regard.
XO Sauce is a Cantonese hot sauce. You can eat it as a condiment with wonton soup, noodles, or dumplings. You can use it to make fried rice, fried noodles or put it in a stir-fry with veggies or meats.
Here’s a picture of the costly ingredient in question. The dried scallops I used in my recipe just happened to be pretty big whole scallops. You can also buy tiny itty bitty ones or broken scallops that of course taste the same but are not whole like the ones you see in this pic. These had been sitting pretty in my cupboards for at least half a year. I think if you freeze them, they’d last a really long time. I have used dried scallops in the past that have been hanging around for a few years and they were a little darker and drier, but had the same flavour. I have a feeling they could last almost indefinitely, though I have never had occasion to experience that in our household. Generally, I add dried scallops to “jook” (congee). I don’t really like fussing with the long soaking periods to create steamed and stewed dishes where you can actually rehydrate the suckers (intact) to go with fresh Chinese veggies.
It had never occurred to me to make hot sauce or even XO Sauce for that matter. However, the other day, my MIL gave me a bottle of homemade XO Sauce from her friend and it was da BOMB! I took to eating it dolloped on a boiled egg. I even got fancy and made devilled eggs (yolks piped with a piping bag) and decorated it with a smidgen of XO Sauce on the top; sprinkled with snipped chives. It was so good! Unfortunately, I ate all of those and there aren’t any pictures.
Try it on eggs, it’s out of this world and so easy! It’s also Low Carb and makes for a great snack when you’re feeling for something salty, savoury and spicy.
Notice that pool of oil in the sauce? Well, that’s how it’s preserved. You keep the XO Sauce in the fridge and it should keep for a few months (unless of course you’re me and eat it practically every day). I used fresh red Thai chili peppers and must confess it was a pain to deseed them. I wore rubber gloves and used a paring knife to split the chilies. I scraped out the seeds and cut off the stems. Then I rinsed them. I think that if you like your hot sauce really hot, you could leave more of the seeds in there. I like it mild.
The recipe I developed doesn’t contain any JinHua ham (a dry-cured ham). Even a prosciutto might do. I didn’t feel like heading to the market to look for it. I just used more dried scallops instead. If you like a smoky-sweet flavour, do try finding some dry-cured ham and finely dice it up to add to the scallops. I imagine you could adapt the recipe to suit your tastebuds. You can play around a bit with the proportion of chilies, scallops, dried shrimp and ham. I used scallions and garlic too and think this is preferable to onion, but I guess you can substitute onion for the scallion.
I don’t like my XO sauce swimming in oil, so my version is kind of “dry”. If you like more oil, you can just add more to ensure that all the ingredients are submerged. You can use the hot oil for stir fries and as a condiment too. What a versatile sauce! My recipe makes a huge quantity of XO Sauce…enough for gifting. I would say it would make a great Christmas gift. You could scale it down easily.
CAKEBRAIN’S XO SAUCE
(makes approximately 5-6 cups of sauce)
- 300 g dried scallops (conpoy)
- approx. 50 g JinHua ham (optional)
- 150 g garlic
- 150 g fresh red Thai chilies, destemmed and deseeded (wear gloves)
- 250 g shallots
- 200 g dried shrimp
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 2 tablespoons pure sesame oil
- kosher salt, to taste
- 4-5 cups grapeseed oil or flavourless oil
- Prepare the fresh chilies first. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. After 15 minutes, or when the temperature has been reached, turn off the oven. Wearing gloves, remove the stems, split in half and scrape out the seeds. Rinse and dry between paper towels. Spread on a sheet pan and place in the turned off oven. Leave the oven door ajar and allow the chilies to dry, preferably overnight.
- Wash and clean the dried scallops. Cover with hot water and soak for about 3 hours until soft (or overnight if you wish, refrigerated). Strain and reserve the scallop liquid for adding to stir-fries and stock or soups. Finely shred the scallops by hand.
- Soak the tiny dried shrimp in hot water for 3 hours. Drain.
- If using the dried ham, dice finely.
- In a food processor, put the shallots, chili peppers and garlic in the bowl and pulse until finely minced. Remove to a bowl and set aside.
- Using the food processor, add half the scallops to the processor bowl and pulse a few times. Empty into large bowl. Then put all the ham if using, and the drained dried shrimp in the processor. Pulse a few times until crumbled in appearance. Add this to the large bowl. Finally, add the other half of the dried scallops and mix thoroughly.
- Heat 4 cups of oil over high heat in a large heavy-bottomed pot. Add the minced onion, garlic and pepper mixture. Saute until translucent. Add the dried scallop mixture and turn down the heat to med-low; continue stirring for approximately 20 minutes. If more oil is needed in order to submerge the ingredients, then add more.
- Season the XO sauce with paprika and salt to taste. Stir in sesame oil. Continue to cook until there is no longer any moisture rising from the mixture.
- Remove from heat and allow to cool.
- Place in containers and seal. Store in the refrigerator.