This Cantonese delicacy doesn’t have any liquor like its namesake, but it’s a vital component of modern Chinese cooking.
In France, XO usually refers to long-aged brandy, but in Hong Kong, it’s all about dried scallops. And shrimp. And ham. And garlic and chiles. And then some. XO sauce is the condiment you make when you want to impress, like dishing out caviar on New Year’s. Quality dried scallops—the meaty, briny bacon of the sea—can cost hundreds of dollars a pound, and adding them and other luxurious dried and cured ingredients to the sauce demands care and attention. Each component is delicately fried on its own before getting added to an oily, chunky master mix dashed with chile heat.
The resulting paste is resoundingly savory, with distinct hits of sweet, salt, and spice, and it turns even simple fried rice or steamed vegetables into high-class eating. Whether you buy it in a Chinese grocery or attempt to make your own, XO sauce will cost you, but a little goes a long way.