The Cream of The Crop: My Mother's Chinese XO Sauce

Homemade Chinese XO Sauce

Chinese XO sauce is a luxurious ingredient that imparts an incredible burst of flavour to food. Versatile but expensive to buy if you go for the good XO sauces (there are plenty of cheap versions) it is surprisingly easy to make. This Chinese New Year make a large batch of this to give to treasured friends as gifts!

Despite the name, XO sauce doesn't actually contain XO Cognac but when it was invented at a Hong Kong hotel in the extravagant 1980's they gave it that name to denote that it was of a superior quality.

Homemade Chinese XO Sauce
Thanks to Nancy for the lovely Chinese New Year trinkets!

I'll be honest and upfront with you Dear Reader, these ingredients aren't inexpensive to buy which accounts for the price of XO sauce. My mother bought the dried scallops when she was visiting back home in Singapore and the prawns were bought in Hong Kong where they were cheaper than they are here. She also used extra large scallops in this which is an extravagance. The sauce usually uses Chinese Jinhua ham but bacon is a tasty easy to find alternative.

But once you try this with seafood, on a plate of steamed vegetables or even a spoonful dolloped on plain noodles or steamed rice you may understand why this is such a glorious sauce. One spoonful of this and the bland is transformed into the flavoursome.

How to make XO sauce with my mother

With Chinese New Year starting today we decided to prepare for it by making this XO sauce. If I see XO sauce offered at a restaurant (usually it is offered at upmarket Cantonese restaurants) I always ask for more. In fact I become a bit embarrassing. I once asked for 6 servings of it before Mr NQN stopped me because it was getting embarrassing (I tried to ask different waitstaff for it to cover up my XO sauce mania).

Homemade Chinese XO Sauce
Dried scallops and prawns

The other night was also slightly embarrassing. We were going out to dinner and that afternoon I had received my shopping order. I pulled on one dress and it was perfect for the restaurant. As I was trying to do up the zipper the phone rang and I answered it. Mr NQN then asked me to get Mochi's food together because she was staying with my parents and after a bit of frantic running around we hurried out into the pouring rain to the car.

As we were driving something was poking me in the back and I reached and touched it. There were a whole lot of labels hanging from the back of the dress that I hadn't yet removed. "Can you remove them?" I asked Mr NQN who was driving, "Just pull over where you can." He pulled the car aside.

"Do you have scissors?" he asked and I shook my head. I mean my bag is full of rubbish but there are no scissors. He tried tugging it and there were so many thick threads connecting the labels that he didn't want to ruin the dress. And then he leaned around and started nibbling on the strings with his teeth. As it happened a man walked past, saw us and did a double take taking a beat out of his step to pause. To him it looked like I was being vampired from the back and I had to give him a reassuring smile and he was on his way. And my dear husband managed to get all the labels off!

So tell me Dear Reader, are you an XO sauce fan? Do you carry scissors with you? Have you ever been caught doing something that looked dodgy?

Chinese XO Sauce

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Start the process 24-36 hours ahead of time

An Original Recipe by Lorraine Elliott

Preparation time: 30 minutes (plus soaking for 24-36 hours)

Cooking time: 30 minutes

  • 150g/5ozs. dried scallops*
  • 150g/5ozs. dried prawns*
  • 500ml/0.8pint Shaoxing cooking wine
  • 200g/7ozs. bacon, rind removed
  • 6-7 large red chillies
  • 2-3 small red chillies
  • 4 large shallots, peeled
  • 100g/3.5ozs. garlic cloves (around 1 large head garlic), smashed and peeled
  • 600ml/21.2flozs. oil
  • 80ml/2.82flozs. light soy sauce
  • 20ml/0.7flozs. dark soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons sugar

You will also need a food processor

Homemade Chinese XO Sauce
Small and large scallops

Both dried scallops and prawns are found at Chinese grocery stores. Larger scallops tend to be more expensive.

Step 1 - Pour boiling water over the scallops and prawns and drain. Soak the scallops and prawns in the Shaoxing cooking wine for 24-36 hours. Make sure to cover with a large plate or cling film.

Homemade Chinese XO Sauce

Step 2 - Drain the scallops and prawns reserving the Shaoxing cooking wine. Place the prawns and scallops in a food processor and process until you get fine shreds. Place in a bowl.

Homemade Chinese XO Sauce

Step 3 - Add the bacon, two types of chillis and shallots in the food processor and process until fairly fine (it doesn't have to be completely fine) and empty into another bowl. Repeat with the garlic cloves placing them in a separate bowl.

Homemade Chinese XO Sauce

Step 4 - Place the reserved Shaoxing wine in a small saucepan and add the two soy sauces and sugar. Simmer until reduced by 1/4.

Homemade Chinese XO Sauce

Step 5 - Heat the oil in a frying pan and when hot enough, add the scallops making sure to be careful that it doesn't splash back. Fry for about 5 minutes or until they start to turn a darker golden.

Homemade Chinese XO Sauce

Step 6 - Then add the chilli bacon mix to the pan and fry for 2-3 minutes until fragrant. Add the garlic and then fry for 1 minute or so. Then add the Shaoxing cooking wine (the oil will now be thick so it won't splatter). Turn off the heat and allow the flavours to meld together. This sauce can keep for up to a month in the fridge.

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