A Common Condiment with Illusions of Grandeur

Posted By | Posted On Dec 17, 2013

The condiment aisle in a Chinese market can be a bit overwhelming. For the novice Asian cuisine enthusiast trying to decipher the labels on jars and bottles can be frustrating to say the least. Many labels are not written in English, and if they are, they are often confusingly vague or just downright wrong. However there is one small jar that is impossible to miss. Just look for the letters XO.

While most Chinese condiments go back thousands of years, XO sauce is a very recent addition. Essentially a spicy seafood-based sauce created in Hong Kong in the 1980’s, and given the name XO to make it sound exotic and exclusive, like XO (extra old) cognac, it quickly became the darling of chefs all over the city, who dubbed it the “caviar of the Orient”.

Other than the fact that there is no actual XO cognac in XO sauce, the list of ingredients can vary tremendously. Dried seafood is a requisite, and can include dried scallops, mackerel, shrimp, anchovies and octopus or cuttlefish. Onions and garlic are usually present, as are hot chilies, both fresh and dried.  Brown sugar, or Chinese unrefined slab sugar provide a hint of sweetness, and you will often find a bit of peanut oil or toasted sesame oil on the list of ingredients. Some makers include salt pork or ham, some use shallots and/or lemongrass. The priciest versions include a bit of shrimp roe as well.

While easy enough to make at home, the ingredients can be very expensive, and many of the brands found in the Asian markets are excellent. Lee Kum Kee makes a very good version, and is readily available.

XO sauce is usually served as a condiment to accompany the main dishes of a Hong Kong style meal. It can be stirred into vegetables, noodles, eggs, fried rice, or just about anything else to give a hint of spicy-sweet balance.

XO Sauce is available at C-Mart and other Chinese markets in Boston’s Chinatown.

C-Mart, 109 Lincoln Street

written by Jim Becker/Chinatown Guide


Leave a Reply