XO Sauce: Love at First Bite

I first read about XO sauce in an August article of the Edmonton Journal. The condiment, created by Hong Kong chefs in the 1980s, sounded exotic, strange and delicious—a combination, naturally, that appealed to me.

The name XO, synonymous with top shelf cognacs, was given to reflect the quality of ingredients and just like XO (extra old) Cognacs, XO sauce is pricey (if and where you can find it)—not surprising considering the recipe calls for the best quality oil, scallops, shrimp, chilies, garlic and ham typically found in cities that have a Chinatown or well-stocked Asian grocery stores.
Not too long after reading that article we were in Vegas at an Asian restaurant called Wazuzu and as luck would have it (this was Vegas after all), there was XO sauce on the menu. It was good. Damn good. Savoury, spicy, toothsome yet delicate and jam-packed with flavour (that’s it on the right, below)…we put it on everything we ordered.

The next day we were bound and determined to find more. We were hooked. I heard good things about another Asian restaurant, Red 8, located at Wynn so off we went.

The XO sauce there was very tasty but Wazuzu’s was superior without a doubt. Red 8’s XO was lighter in texture and colour and lacked the depth of flavor of Wazuzu’s. We left for home later that night without even thinking to ask if we could purchase the sauce from the restaurant. Doh.

A couple of weeks later, I was in Vancouver doing research for an article while Steve attended a conference. As we hunkered over steaming bowls of Cambodian soup in Chinatown one day, Steve got it in his head to make his own XO sauce. A search on Google provided several recipes and we stepped out into the chaos of North America’s third largest Chinatown. After scouring a few stores, we found Jinhua ham, something that I didn’t think we could find in Edmonton. It came in a vacuum sealed package and would be easy to transport home. We also needed dried shrimp (2 different sizes), conpoy (scallops), salt cured fish and dried shrimp roe but I refused to pack those in my suitcase. Seeing as I would be returning to Edmonton before Steve, I became the food mule but I balked at packing fish. Those items, I insisted, could be found in Edmonton’s Chinatown. I wasn’t going to risk having my suitcase and clothes smell like a fish market.

Back in Edmonton, Steve spent a full day buying groceries to make XO sauce. The one ingredient he couldn’t find was conpoy. Uh…yeah. Vancouver’s Chinatown had vats upon vats of the stuff but in Edmonton, no chance. A fellow at T&T suggested looking for conpoy at a Chinese herbalist shop/drugstore and lo and behold, that’s exactly where we found it (and a lot of other interesting and unidentifiable animal bits and pieces). Can’t remember the exact name of the store but it was just south of Pagolac and across from Boualong on 97 Street.

Steve combined two or three different recipes (nothing is ever simple for Steve) and set to work. Soak. Dice. Chop. Fry. Dice some more, mix this, chop that. Fry. Fry. Fry.

Eight hours later, we had our very own XO sauce and I have to say, it looked impressive. We needed to leave it in the fridge overnight to let the flavours meld but I was dying to try it with some muskox wontons I had hanging around. (Doesn’t everyone?)

I have to give Steve credit: Wazuzu’s XO sauce was mind-altering. Orgasmic. Sublime. But what he created came pretty darn close. We just had our neighbour–a gourmand in his own right–over for a visit. He had two dishes of it all by itself. Now the boys are planning an XO sauce making day…kind of like how us girls used to get together to make pierogies. That pretty much says it all right there.

Author: Twyla Campbell

World-wide wanderer, CBC Edmonton AM Restaurant Reviewer, Member of Edmonton’s Slow Food convivium, oenophile, epicurean explorer and a freelance writer whose works have appeared in several magazines and newspapers including More, Above & Beyond, Avenue (Edmonton), Up Here, Northern Flyer, Opulence, City Palate, the Edible Prairie Journal, The Edmonton Journal, Slow Food Canada, Lifestyle Alberta, and on Slow Food Edmonton’s website. Grant MacEwan University (Professional Writing Program) Bachelor of Applied Communications Degree (in progress). I’m a Tweeter @wanderwoman10

5 thoughts on “XO Sauce: Love at First Bite

  1. I invited myself to Steve and Twyla’s yesterday to add another chit to my legal bill. As usual, my neighbors comments were clear, concise, and helpful, and thankfully the conversation soon turned to food. Steve then asked me if I wanted to try the XO sauce he and Tweelie (my kids nic for Twyla) made a few days ago. I said “YES!”. Twyla emerged from her home office as Steve handed me an attractive jar containing a substance resembling the slime that I scrape from the bottom of my compost repository each week. Steeling my nerves, and recalling the grace with which Anthony Bourdain savours some seemingly unappealing delicacies, I opened the jar and drew in the fragrance of the cold sauce d’extra vieux. It smelled very fishy and I instantly prejudged that I would likely not enjoy the taste. Steve tossed a tablespoon or two into the microwave for a few seconds and handed me the small bowl and a spoon. I smelled the sauce a second time and much to my surprise it did not smell as fishy as it had cold, as if the heat had allowed the other aromas from the ham, cayenne, and oil to emerge. While silently chanting the much glibified (my word) Nietzsche aphorism “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” I confidently (not) popped a healthy mass into my pie hole. My first thought was that it was not offensive. I liked the texture of the richly infuzed oil and savory bits of chewy almost crunchy meat – and it was not overly fishy. I helped myself to a second bite, then a third, then a fourth. Spooning into my mouth the remaining oil spoke volumes: I love this sauce! Later that afternoon as I was toiling with my brioche and pate de lapin all I could think about was that damned XO sauce.

  2. Well Bret, you could’ve just said “I loved the sauce!” but I would certainly expect more from a man who toils over brioche and pate. So, thanks for the deliciously worded comment…we’ll let you know the next XO Sauce making day is! Bring your apron and the wine. 🙂

  3. I have recently heard of this as a fellow blogger also just made her own and I have the scallops in the cupboard – after a trip to Chinatown with LeQuan. How long will it keep?
    And, are you going to host a Northern dinner this year? The muskox made me think of it… I have never gone and am dying to…
    🙂
    Valerie

  4. Oops, finger slipped…I just deleted my own reply! Anyways, Valerie, if I was forced into exile and could only take three things, XO Sauce would be one of them. 🙂

    I think the recipe(s) suggested the sauce will keep for about 3 to 4 weeks in the fridge.

    We hope to have a NFN in the Spring (its usually around April) but we won’t know for a while yet. I’ll give you as much notice as possible so you can be sure to come!

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