If you’ve visited any fine dining Chinese restaurant, you might have come across the XO sauce on their menu. While the Schezuan sauce and the Kung Pao sauce might be a popular choice that diners across India make, the lesser tried out XO sauce, is just as delicious and could be a much welcome change of taste. Before we delve deeper in to what the XO sauce is, it is necessary to draw the difference between the two ways in which Chinese sauces are used in cooking. For those who are used to cooking Chinese delicacies, it won’t come as news that, Chinese sauces are used both as a condiment and also a gravy. Depending on how intense the sauce is, it’s either diluted with milk or water to make a gravy, or simply used as much as a pinch, when used in the form of a condiment. In its most pure and concentrated form, these Chinese sauces are used as a condiment or a flavour enhancer. 

The saying, ‘a little goes a long way,’ couldn’t be truer when it comes to using the flavourful XO sauce. In order to understand why this sauce is referred to as the 'Caviar of the East' and what you’re in for if you opt for cooking with this sauce, it’s important to first, understand it’s taste. 

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The umami taste of the condiment  

The XO sauce is a spicy sauce that is best suited to be used while cooking seafood like prawns, shrimps, dried scallops etc. While it’s recommended to pair the sauce with sea-food, it’s not unusual to find the option of a XO stir fried Chinese water spinach or chicken in XO sauce on a restaurant’s menu. However, in general, this umami flavoured sauce pairs well with sea-food because XO sauce in itself, is mainly full of concentrated ingredients of dried sea-food. Apart from its umami flavour, the sauce has hints of sweet, smoky, and salty flavours. Do remember that this is a condiment that will dominate a dish with its intense and concentrated taste.

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Tracing the history of the XO sauce

The history of the XO sauce traces back to the 1980s. First used for cooking in the Cantonese cuisine in Hongkong, there are multiple claims as to where this condiment originated from. According to the more popular claim, a chef at the swanky Peninsula Hong Kong hotel, is often credited with developing this sauce in 1980, and naming it after the then fancy drink-of-the-moment, XO cognac. Did you know that even today, in the shopping area at the Peninsula Hotel there is a shop named Peninsula Boutique, where you could buy the XO Chilli sauce (also marked as their best seller) for the price of 395 Hongkong dollars (approximately ₹3929)? 

The second claim to the origin of this sauce comes from other nearby restaurants around the same area as the Peninsula hotel (Tsim Sha Tsui area of Kowloon). However, the Peninsula hotel stay firm in their claim to the sauce and clearly state on their website the following: 

‘Our famed gastronomic XO Chilli Sauce was first introduced at The Peninsula’s Spring Moon Chinese restaurant back in the 1980s. A revered Chinese condiment and a Peninsula signature, this rich savoury sauce is made with a secret recipe with a gourmet blend of dried scallops, shallots, garlic, chilli, dried shrimp, shrimp roe and more.’

A chef at The Peninsula’s Spring Moon Chinese restaurant cooking seafood. Credit: Instagram/peninsulahongkong 

What’s in a name? 

XO sauce was so named, deriving inspiration from fine XO (meaning extra old) Cognac. Legend has it that the chef who came up with the sauce, named it after the pricy drink-of-the-moment, XO cognac. The XO cognac is a popular liquor in Hong Kong and in 1980s it was considered to be a classy and a chic drink. However, the name of the XO sauce is nothing more than a misnomer, since the condiment contains no cognac, and rather than being a sauce in the traditional, smooth sense, the condiment is more chunky, similar to a relish. The term XO is still often used in Hong Kong to denote luxury, prestige and pristine quality. Did you know that even today the XO sauce is marketed in the same manner as is fancy French liquor, using packaging of similar colour schemes? Due to its reputation as a luxury sauce, this sauce is also called as the ‘Caviar of the East.'

What does this fancy sauce contain? 

The primary ingredients of XO sauce are dried scallop, red chilli pepper, Jinhua ham, dried shrimp, garlic and canola oil. Some recipes also use salted cured fish and diced onion as ingredients in the XO sauce. Many chefs draw similarity between the XO sauce and the Fujianese Shacha sauce basis the ingredients. Both the sauces are dried seafood-based sauces and can be used as an alternative, in case one of them is unavailable. However, XO sauce is considered significantly more expensive.  

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The many uses of this decades old condiment 

The XO sauce can be used as a table condiment or in cooking to enhance the flavour of fish, meats, vegetables, and otherwise bland foods such as tofu or noodles. The XO sauce is ideal for cooking as a gravy after being diluted by certain agents. It can also be served as a dipping sauce or be spread on a toast or cracker for flavoursome snack.