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XO sauce is seafood-based and is salty, sweet, and spicy at the same time. Called the "caviar of the Orient," this multiflavored sauce also contains other ingredients like shallots, garlic, and chillies. Cooks use the sauce as a condiment, relish, and a way to boost the flavors of a dish. Created in the 1980s in Hong Kong, the sauce is very popular in Cantonese cuisine, particularly in Southern China, and is usually found as a thick paste. Many consider XO sauce to be the emperor of sauces, and it was originally served exclusively in gourmet seafood restaurants.
The sauce has become popular worldwide, and people can find ready-made versions in Asian supermarkets. Named after a particular brand of cognac called XO, which stands for extra old, the sauce was sold in packaging similar to the liquor. Cognac was considered a luxury item in earlier times, and it was a symbol of prestige to present it as a gift. The term XO came to be associated with exclusivity, luxury, prestige, and high quality. The sauce was given the name to denote its exclusive status, and most of the ingredients used to make it are slightly costly.
Extremely versatile, cooks use this sauce to flavor rice or noodles, top bean curd, add it to stir-fries, or use it simply as a dip. Many exotic preparations call for a dash of XO sauce, such as squash and pork with XO sauce, XO sauce with sugar snap peas, or oysters in XO sauce. The ingredients are mostly dried shrimp, garlic, and dried scallops. Various seasonings, Chinese ham, onions, and dried fish are some of the other ingredients used to make this dish. It is possible to make it at home, though it is quite labor intensive and requires a lot of time.
The process involves soaking dried shrimps and scallops overnight in water until they are thoroughly rehydrated. The cook drains both the shrimps and scallops and chops them up finely. Then, he or she cuts up the shallots and garlic in a food processor and de-seeds the fresh and dry chillies. Next, the cook chops them up along with the ham and sets it aside. Lastly, he or she throws the scallops into hot oil and fries them until they become crispy.
The cook stirs the mixture continuously, adding more oil if needed. Salt, pepper and sugar are the next step, along with a dash of oyster sauce. The cook fries the sauce for around an hour in total until all the ingredients combine to emit a complex, layered flavor.
The sauce is done when it acquires a beautiful mahogany brown color and attains the consistency of a flaky, dry paste. Once it cools down, it can be transferred to sterile jars and stored in the refrigerator. Cooks prefer to prepare the sauce in bulk to make the most of the expensive ingredients.
A local upscale Chinese restaurant features XO seafood on its menu. Their XO sauce will about knock your head off, but it's some of the best seafood I've ever had. The XO sauce is deceptively complex and sweet.
XO shrimp is one of my very favorite dishes there because it offers so many different flavors in one dish. I just need to make sure the server knows to keep my water glass filled. That stuff really is spicy. I like brown rice with it because the rice helps diffuse the heat, and also lends a nice earthy flavor to the shrimp.