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.

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