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11 May 2021

XO sauce is a spicy seafood sauce used widely in Chinese cuisine, made primarily from dried shrimp and scallops with chili peppers, that adds a unique flavor and umami to many dishes. Learn all about it and how to make it at home.

China has a rich history and culture. For thousands of years behind the Forbidden City doors, royal families ruled the vast lands. Though the monarchs keep changing year after year, there is one thing that all of these royals had in common: the royal banquets and dishes that were enjoyed by all.

One such relatively newer creation is the wonderful XO sauce. This sauce is an amazingly unique mixture of flavors of the sea.

In the past, before technology of modern cooling units or refrigerators, chefs had to come up with ways to preserve the meats that had been caught in excess. The meat that was preserved does not lose it taste but also become more intensified and concentrated in nature.

With seafood, it adds a salty quality to the meat and inspires chefs to create different recipes with it. One such recipe is XO sauce and it has been passed down from generation to generation.

XO Sauce in a bowl

What is XO Sauce?

XO sauce is a seafood sauce that combines the flavors of the seas in a balanced and innovative manner. This sauce is primarily made from dried seafood meats. This way a lot of umami flavor is added to the mix and it can be served with many different types of dishes to add to their flavor.

Despite such a long culinary history, XO sauce is a fairly newer recipe, created in the 1980s in Hong Kong. The name means “Extra Old”, which refers to expensive cognac, though cognac is not a recipe ingredient. 

The main ingredients of this sauce are dried prawns and dried scallops. There is also a considerable amount of fresh vegetables added to the mix, including chili peppers. Traditionally, this sauce was cooked in the winters to provide some hearty fish meat flavors to the cuisine.

As part of the original recipe, some type of cured pork is also added to the sauce; however, people who want to eat kosher can skip this part. Traditional Chinese restaurants offer this sauce with many dishes and also use this as an ingredient to flavor plain dishes.

Interestingly, the “XO” is equated with high quality in China, making XO sauce more of a luxury item to cook with.

XO Sauce on a fork

XO Sauce Ingredients

As time passed, many different elements and ingredients have been introduced to the sauce. However, no matter what the recipe, the essence of the sauce is always preserved.

Here is the list of ingredients that is needed to prepare a fresh batch of XO sauce:

  • Dried Seafood. Use dried scallops and dried shrimp or dried prawns.
  • Jinhua Ham. Or use Cured Pork or prosciutto, roughly chopped.
  • Aromatics. Use Onion or Shallots, Thai Peppers (Or use bird’s eye peppers, or milder peppers for less heat), Garlic, Ginger, Green onion.
  • Liquids. Shaoxing Wine (or use dry sherry), Oyster Sauce, Dark Soy Sauce, Vegetable Oil (Or use any neutral oil), Chicken Stock.
  • Seasonings. Chili Flakes (Chinese chili flakes preferred, Brown Sugar, Salt)

Other popular ingredients in xo sauce include fish sauce, fish stock, salted fish, shrimp roe.

How to Make XO Sauce – the Recipe Method

Rehydrate the Dried Seafood. Rinse then add the dried scallops and shrimp to a heatproof bowl. Cover with very hot water and soak for at least 2 hours. Soaking overnight is good. Drain the scallops and shrimp, but reserve the soaking liquid. Finely mince the shrimp and scallops with a knife, or use a food processor. Set aside.

Cook the Vegetables. Heat the vegetable oil in a large pot over medium high heat until shimmering. A Dutch oven is great for this. Do not boil. Add shallots, garlic, ginger and chili peppers and cook for 15 minutes, stirring often, or until the vegetables crisp up and turn golden brown. Strain out the crisp vegetables and set aside.

Cook the Meats. Add the shrimp, scallops and cured ham. Simmer for 10 minutes. Return the reserved fried vegetables to the pot. 

Add Liquids and Simmer. Add wine and 2 tablespoons of the reserved soaking liquid, brown sugar, oyster sauce, soy sauce, chicken stock and chili flakes. Simmer for 15 minutes, or until the mixture thickens up.

Finish the XO Sauce. When the consistency of the xo sauce reaches a moderately thick paste, turn off the heat and preserve the sauce in a glass container.

What is a Substitute for XO sauce?

Due to the strong seafood flavors, there are not many great substitutes for this sauce. Some chefs recommend using a mixture of chili oil, fish paste, and oyster sauce with finely chopped onions. Some types of oil infused chili sauces can also be used as a great alternative to this sauce.

It is difficult to substitute the wonderful umami provided by this sauce.

How to Cook with XO Sauce?

Take all the dried meats prawns, scallops, soak them and pound them in a mortar. Fry salted fish and crush it finely. Finely chop onions, red chilies, garlic, ginger, smoked pork, green onions, and let them simmer in the oil for 15 minutes. Add prepared seafood meat, oyster sauce, salt, sugar, dark soy sauce, and seafood stock to the pot as well. Add the remaining oil and let all the ingredients cook on a medium flame. Remove the sauce after 30 minutes, cool down, serve fresh or preserve in a glass jar for later use.

It is outstanding in many, many Chinese dishes, particularly fried rice or a good stir fry, which I deeply love.

XO Sauce on a fork for serving

Where Can I Buy XO Sauce?

Almost all Asian grocery markets and shopping sections sell XO sauce. However, most people prefer to buy the main ingredients like dried scallops and prawns to prepare the sauce at home.

Why is XO Sauce So Expensive?

The main ingredients of the sauce that is dried scallops and prawns are quite expensive. Even in the Asian countries, it is not easy to find cheap dried scallops. Therefore, the prices of the sauce might seem higher than other sauces. It is considered more of a luxury sauce.

XO Sauce Recipe

Learn how to make homemade XO sauce, the spicy Chinese seafood sauce made primarily from dried shrimp and scallops with chili peppers.
Prep Time20 mins
Cook Time40 mins
Soaking Time2 hrs
Course: sauce
Cuisine: Chinese
Keyword: dried scallops, dried shrimp, thai peppers
Servings: 32 tablespoons
Calories: 99kcal

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces dried scallops
  • 2 ounces dried shrimp
  • 1/2 cup Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
  • 2 ounces Jinhua ham or use other dry cured ham or prosciutto
  • 1 large shallot thinly sliced
  • 10 cloves garlic thinly sliced
  • 1 large knob ginger peeled and thinly sliced
  • 2 green onions thinly sliced
  • 2-3 Thai chili peppers thinly sliced (or use bird's eye peppers, or milder peppers to your taste)
  • 1-1/4 cups vegetable oil or other neutral oil
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar or use white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
  • 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup chicken stock
  • 1 tablespoon chili flakes optional - or use a spicy chili powder
  • Salt to taste

Instructions

  • Rehydrate the Dried Seafood. Rinse then add the dried scallops and shrimp to a heatproof bowl. Cover with very hot water and soak for at least 2 hours. Soaking overnight is good. Drain the scallops and shrimp, but reserve the soaking liquid. Finely mince the shrimp and scallops with a knife, or use a food processor. Set aside.
  • Cook the Vegetables. Heat the vegetable oil in a large pot over medium heat until shimmering. Do not boil. Add shallots, garlic, ginger and chili peppers and cook for 15 minutes, stirring often, or until the vegetables crisp up and turn golden brown. Strain out the crisp vegetables and set aside.
  • Cook the Meats. Add the shrimp, scallops and cured ham. Simmer for 10 minutes. Return the reserved fried vegetables to the pot.
  • Add Liquids and Simmer. Add wine and 2 tablespoons of the reserved soaking liquid, brown sugar, oyster sauce, soy sauce, chicken stock and chili flakes. Simmer for 15 minutes, or until the mixture thickens up.
  • Finish the XO Sauce. When the consistency of the xo sauce reaches a moderately thick paste, turn off the heat and preserve the sauce in a glass container.

Notes

Makes about 2 cups.
Other popular ingredients in xo sauce include fish sauce, fish stock, salted fish.

Nutrition

Calories: 99kcal | Carbohydrates: 2g | Protein: 2g | Fat: 9g | Saturated Fat: 7g | Trans Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 22mg | Sodium: 151mg | Potassium: 27mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 1g | Vitamin A: 85IU | Vitamin C: 1mg | Calcium: 12mg | Iron: 1mg