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Chinese XO Sauce--A Connoiseur's Caviar

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Summer Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(2) page(s): 27, 30, 37, and 38

The pair of plum sauce recipes in Flavor and Fortune’s Volume 11(1) on page 6 brought many letters. Readers gave reasons for their pleasure in trying them, and reasons for their angst. Many had never seen or used plum sauce as an ingredient in a recipe, others had never made it. Some wondered about other sauces as ingredients and for dipping. Other than soy sauce, lots of readers had not used any as for dipping purposes. That brought the realization and a question, are readers unaware of what might be the newest newer sauce named after one expensive Hennessey cognac? Do they know there is such a sauce, called XO sauce? There were requests galore for how to make other sauces.

Chinese sauces are difficult to provide recipes for because most basic ones are fermented. Fermented sauces and all things fermented are best made under sterile conditions. They need fine temperature control, lots of technical know-how, and patience by the pile. A home-made sauce needs to be a good mimics of the real thing or taste even better, and it should be easy to make.

Everyone can learn more about sauces, which the Chinese call jiang, and everyone can make a few of them. We hope readers try to make the one featured in this article. Making a sauce available when it is needed can mean making adjustments to meet different tastes. Home-made sauces are especially valuable when proximity to Asian markets is problematic. Home-made sauces can even be better than commercial ones. For those with allergies to a sauce component, and others who have religious or other proscriptions, making sauces can be most appreciated as then, they are never deprived of their use.

Not every sauce can be made at home nor made easily, but quite a few can. XO sauce can be both, and making some at home can be lots better than its store-bought cousins. XO sauce was discussed in Flavor and Fortune’s Volume 7 (3) on page 27. Then and now, it qualifies as a very expensive sauce.

Lee Kum Kee prides itself as the first to manufacture XO sauce. They and restaurants that make their own are reluctant to share recipes. The New York Times on August 16, 2000, wrote an article that was titled: The Case of the Elusive XO. In it, the writer says that twenty years earlier, Ken Hom could not extract the secret of XO sauce from a host of Hong Kong eateries. The article’s author, William Grimes, advises that there are a long list of items needed to make it. Reading labels today, that list is not too long, and it does vary considerably from product to product.

Several readers reminded us of that article and discussed price, which is high, and availability, which can be low or non-existent. When this magazine's article was published, this premium product sold for eight dollars a tiny bottle containing about six tablespoons. In some markets, low prices may prevail, though we have found none; in others, it is still pricy. Recently, we noted that Amoy brand came out with a new product, perhaps their first XO sauce. It had an introductory price of three small bottles (2.8 ounces each) for $9.99. Truth be told, one Asian superstore, called The Hong Kong Market, featured it at the end of an aisle for that price. The very same day about two miles away, another Hong Kong Market sold theirs for $4.99 each, no sign of sale there.

Lee Kum Kee, makes many sauces including XO sauce. Not everyone agrees they were first, or even the first to name it XO. One reader, aware of the Third International Food Science and Technology Conference run by a Taiwanese group, said: "Fish sauce has been one of the major condiments in China for more than 2,500 years, especially in coastal areas; and maybe even then they made some with dried scallops."

A search of the literature and the web neither confirmed nor denied these assertions. Restauranteurs have been making their own for years and years, long before it was bottled and sold. Most make it with dry scallops, others use other dried products of the sea. One person wondered if XO is just a new name for an older product made with ''conpoy.'' Should you not know, 'conpoy' is another word for dried scallop, and most sources say it belongs in XO sauce. But not all XO sauces use just conpoy, or just shrimp, or even just abalone. One even adds chicken and ham. This argument of who is first and what belongs in this sauce we leave to others. However, is you have or find historical documents, do share them with us; and we in turn will share them with all of our readers.

Most important, are the questions: What is XO sauce; how do you use it; and what do people say about it? One manufacturer calls their XO sauce an 'all purpose gourmet condiment.' Another calls XO sauce the ''caviar of the Orient.'' Still another says XO sauce is 'a connoisseur’s premier choice.' One manufacturer says that 'the use of XO sauce generates an ability to create tasty recipes.' A national American food association (NASFT) called XO sauce 'an outstanding new product;' and that was in 1993. It may have been new to them, but not to Chinese manufacturers. Several manufacturers have made this sauce for dozens upon dozens of years. The exact number of dozens, we do not know.

Looking at XO sauces, including those made in several restaurants, almost every one of them is made with at east a little dried scallop. There the unanimity ends. Most XO sauces we have eaten have red chili peppers, shallots, garlic, shrimp, scallop, and spices mixed with soy or another vegetable oil. Some have all of these with or without chicken or ham, other meat, shrimp roe, one or another fish, abalone, sugar, salt, black beans, Chinese radish, shallots, cooking wine, caramel coloring, MSG, and one or another preservative. There are manufacturers and restauranteurs who tout theirs as using the freshest ingredients, and those that say their XO sauce has no preservatives.

If you read labels, you note that most XO sauces are made in Hong Kong. To date we have only located one made in the United States. Among the manufactured ones, differences besides their contents, are size of jar, how it is packaged, amount of product; and taste. All but two commercial XO sauces we found, came hidden in a six-sided box. The newest, Amoy’s, comes in a four-sided box. And for all of them but the one that does not come in a box (Yank Sing), the size of the box misleads. Why? Because every one of the boxes has a false bottom. One jar was only half as tall as its outer cardboard box. While weight was clearly marked, the amount inside was less than what it seemed. So read labels carefully.

Commercial XO sauce contents vary from 2.8 ounces to 7.8 ounces. Some of the jars are but two inches tall. The boxes vary from a bit more than three inches tall to almost five inches in height. Many boxes are close to twice the height of the jar, and not all jars come full. First time purchasers need to be aware of this deception. If American manufacturers packaged their products that way, consumers would holler.

It is the American product that does not come hidden in a box. That west coast XO producer’s jars sits tall, larger than all the others, and ounce for once, is a bargain. Everyone sees their jars and they see their contents. Every imported XO sauce in the Asian supermarkets visited in three cities on two coasts, sold two sizes of XO sauce, and all in boxes.

Many years ago we found the Yank Sing glass jar of Chili XO Sauce for sale in our favorite San Francisco dim sum restaurant of the same name. (That restaurant and others in that city were reviewed in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 4 on pages 15 and 18, and in Volume 5 (2) on pages 17 & 18.) We saw it and purchased several jars to tote cross-country. Later, it could sometimes be had on the east coast. Just last week, we discovered two large East-coast Asian supermarkets that carry it.

Which XO sauce is a personal preference that can not be discerned by reading labels. Contents are far from similar in them. Tasting amplifies differences, so let’s talk taste and contents. Four, of ones tasted were found somewhat acceptable or better, and they were very different from each other. Their manufacturers were: Amoy Food Ltd., Giant Tree Brand, Lee Kum Kee, and Yank Sing. The others were not worthy of consideration. Those that are follow:

AMOY EXTRA HOT ABALONE XO SAUCE contains: Rapeseed Oil, Shallot, Garlic, Dried Shrimp, Dried Scallop, Abalone Extract, Flavor Enhancer (Monosodium Glutamate), Sugar, Salt, Capsicum Oleoresin, Paprika Oleoresin.
GIANT TREE BRAND XO SAUCE contains: Vegetable Oil, Chicken Meat, Conpoy (Dried Scallop), Dried Shrimp, Dried Fish, Shallot, Garlic, Red Chili Pepper, Sugar, Salt, Natural Spices, Pepper Powder, Cooking Wine, Caramel, Potassium Sorbate, Solid Content.
LEE KUM KEE XO SAUCE contains: Soy Bean Oil, Dried Shrimp, Conpoy (Dried Scallop), Red Chili Pepper, Shallot, Garlic, Oyster Extratives, Shrimp Roe, Sugar, Salt, Spices, Flavor Enhancer (Monosodium Glutamate/E621).
YANK SING'S CHILI XO SAUCE includes: Corn oil, soy sauce (water, soybeans, wheat, salt), garlic, Chinese radish, chili peppers, dried shrimp, dried scallops, sugar, msg, salt, black beans, potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate at less than 0.1% as preservatives.

The law requires that ingredients on their labels be listed in reducing order by weight, most to least. Serving sizes vary, sometimes, but not always allowed to. For this sauce, they ranged from a teaspoon (called ten grams) to a tablespoon (listed as fifteen grams). We wonder about the accuracy of the teaspoon-sized product. Calorie count was from sixty calories a teaspoon to eighty calories a tablespoon. And no matter location of manufacture, three teaspoons does and always equals one tablespoon.

Almost everyone consumes very little XO sauce at any one time, so comparing calories and the other nutrients should not be a big issue. Every label on XO sauce says it is 'very hot' or 'extra hot.' Our tasters did find differences in this characteristic, and in several others. They were in agreement that the Giant Tree Brand product was among the four best, but at the bottom of that heap. No one liked it best or even second best, but most did comment that its texture was most uniform of the four. Many reacted to the large unevenly cut vegetable pieces in the Lee Kum Kee brand, one did so rather negatively noting larger unevenly cut pieces in this product; also more oil. The Yank Sing brand was also with more oil than most.

Comments included too oily for all but the Giant Tree Brand XO sauce. Actually, that was its saving grace and maybe what made it be among the top four. One taster said the hottest was Yank Sing’s and another said it was the sweetest by a small fraction. Still another said hottest, yes, sweetest, no. Singling out features, everyone deemed the Amoy brand’s pieces of scallop too crisp. That may have been why its texture was least liked.

OVERALL, the best XO sauce was the Yank Sing Chili XO Sauce. Lee Kum Kee’s was a very close second and not as hot as the label implied. It was also a bit bitter, some of our tasters noted. All tasters said Yank Sing and Lee Kum Kee products were different enough to make them hard to compare. Tasters thought the XO sauce made with abalone, by Amoy, had the least amount of conpoy, after Tree Giant and, therefore, deemed that product not good value, even on sale. Yank Sing’s XO sauce lost one supporter due to its high oil content; that person did not like mixing it just before use. Another commented that with no fillers, starch, or emulsifiers to kept the oil in suspension and its nice taste that was exactly why she preferred it. Clearly, content on label, taste, and looks are important factors.

When comparing commercial with home-made XO sauce, there is no contest. Every commercial brand was less liked than were those made in our kitchen or purchased form restaurants that made their own. Everyone liked our home-made version, and ranked it the very best of the bunch.

So do see which you like best. Compare the commercial products with a friend because this taste-test costs more than fifty dollars before purchasing those from restaurants. Making your own is not cheap, either. The first time you may want to do that with a friend, too. Dried scallops are very expensive; and available in different sizes and at different costs. Five dried scallops cost us ten bucks, and among those in a speciality store, they were in the mid-price range. That said, we still make our own XO sauce for less that a quarter of the price of any commercial one, considering the comparatively large amount the recipe makes.

We paid $4.99 for the 2.8 ounce jar of the Amoy XO sauce and did not find any on sale until ten days later. Comparable in size, the Giant Tree Brand set us back $4.35 (and an airline ticket to Los Angeles). Lee Kum Kee’s 2.8 ounce bottle was $6.98. The Yank Sing XO sauce was selling for $5.95 in our local Asian supermarket; and it was a six ounce jar. That really was half the price of the next expensive brand. Lee Kum Kee’s 7.8 ounce jar topped the economic scale at $13.98. The larger eight ounce Yank Sing jar cost a mere $7.98. Overall: Yank Sing’s Chili XO Sauce was best tasting, most cost effective, and overall the best buy. Not yet mentioned was the fact that no one called it ‘bitter.’ a term used for both the Amoy and Lee Kum Kee brand XO sauces. Most restaurants use their XO sauce for dipping purposes. Fine Chinese restaurants like to serve it with excellent dumplings. They also use it in cooking. One reader told us to mix XO sauce, two to one, with thin soy sauce, and then use it with vegetables. Truthfully, we found that a waste. Better is Wan Ja Shan’s Vegetarian Oyster Sauce for that purpose. ABC’s Kecap Manis manufactured by Heinz ABC, the one with a red and yellow label, is also a fine sauce for vegetables.

A few recipes follow. The first is to make your own XO sauce. Should you have neither time nor inclination, taste test the top brands and pick the one you like best. Also, find other uses for conpoy. It is a tasty treat in many dishes; as the following recipes can attest. And one other thing, the amount oof XO sauce used, varies depending upon appreciation of not only its taste but also its piquancy. So on to your own taste-testing.
XO Sauce
5 dried scallops
2 Tablespoons dried tiny shrimp, shells and vein removed
3 Tablespoons corn oil
3 shallots, peeled and minced (see note below)
5 chili peppers, seeded and crushed
2 Tablespoons chopped Yunnan or Smithfield ham, (or two tablespoons thin soy sauce)
1. Steam scallops in one cup of water over rapidly boiling water, for one hour. Then remove them from the water, reserving it, and when cool, tear the scallops into individual strands.
2. Soak shrimp for half an hour, drain, then finely chop them.
3. Heat oil and fry the shallots for two minutes, then drain well and set aside.
4. Fry scallop strands, minced shrimp, peppers, and ham for two minutes.
5. Add the reserved scallop liquid, and enough additional water to make a cup and a half of liquid, into a small pot. Simmer uncovered for half an hour.
6. Sterilize two small jars. Divide the mixture, now called XO sauce, half in each bottle, and refrigerate.
Note: Commercially fried shallots can be used.
XO Sauced Cucumber and Bitter Melon
1 bitter melon, seeded, white membrane removed, cut in fourths the long way, then cut into two-inch lengths about half-inch wide
1 cucumber, cut in quarters and cut to match bitter melon
1/2 carrot, peeled and slivered
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 dried red chili, seeded, and crushed
2 Tablespoons XO sauce
1/2 Tablespoon corn oil
2 slices fresh ginger, slivered
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon mushroom soy sauce
1. Soak bitter melon in ice water for half an hour, then blanch it for two minutes, and drain.
2. Mix bitter melon, cucumber, carrot, garlic, salt, chili pepper pieces, and XO sauce and set aside for thirty minutes, then drain any liquid and discard.
3. Heat corn oil and fry ginger for half minute. Add vegetable mixture and stir-fry until cucumber and bitter melon are wilted and soft. Add sugar, sesame oil, and mushroom soy, fry another minute, and serve.
Conpoy Fried Rice
1 conpoy prepared as indicated below
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 cup corn oil
3 cups cooked and chilled rice
6 shrimp, shelled, deveined, and cut in half the long way
two-inch piece of Chinese or English cucumber, quartered and sliced
1 slice fresh ginger, minced
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
2 egg white or 1 whole egg, beaten
2 scallions, sliced thinly on an angle
1. Soak dried scallop for one hour in tepid water. Then steam it for at least an hour or until it can be torn into very thin shreds. Drain and tear it into shreds. Dust with the cornstarch. Deep fry for thirty seconds, drain, and set aside.
2. In a wok, heat one tablespoon of the oil used to fry the scallop shreds and fry ginger for half minute and set aside to cool. Then remove ginger and discard or save for another purpose. Do not discard the oil.
3. Heat rest of the oil and blanch the shrimp and drain, then blanch the cucumber pieces and set them aside. Discard this oil.
4. Return wok to the heat and add the rice and stir until grains separated and heated. Then add shrimp, cucumber, sesame oil, and soy sauce and stir for a minute.
5. Add egg whites or the egg and stir-fry another minute, then add half the scallop shreds and scallions, mix well. Put in a bowl, put the rest of the scallop shreds on top, and serve.
Beef and XO Sauce
1/2 pound flank steak, cut into thin strips
1 Tablespoon mushroom soy sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 Tablespoons corn oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
2 Tablespoons XO sauce
1 onion, cut in wedges
1 green pepper, cut in thin strips
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon rice wine
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with one tablespoon cold water
1. Mix meat with soy sauce and cornstarch and let rest for ten minutes.
2. Heat oil and fry garlic and XO sauce for one minute, then add onions and green peppers and stir-fry until they wilt.
3. Add meat and stir fry just until it loses its pink color, then add sugar, salt, and rice wine and stir another minute, then add cornstarch mixture, stirring until it thickens, then serve.
XO Sauce with Tofu
2 pieces firm tofu
1/2 piece silken tofu
2 Tablespoons XO sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 eggs, beaten until light
1/2 cup chicken or vegetable broth
2 Tablespoons minced Chinese chives
2 Tablespoons peanut or corn oil
1 Tablespoon cornstarch mixed with one tablespoon water
4 Tablespoons minced coriander
1. Cut firm tofu into one-inch pieces and mash the silken tofu mixing both with the XO sauce, salt, and sesame oil. Then add the beaten eggs, broth, and chives.
2. Heat peanut oil and add the egg mixture and stir as it starts to set. Then stir in the cornstarch mixture and the coriander and cook until it thickens, about a minute--but no more than two. Serve immediately.

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