You are here because you love XO sauce and want to try making it at home. I will not bore you with all the story stuff. The truth is, XO sauce to Cantonese is the same as garam masala to Indians – you will never find “the one” recipe. As I was searching for a formula that appeals to me the most, I came across this one. It has been tweaked and worked on by Executive Chef Ho at the Royal Garden Restaurant in Hong Kong for the past few decades (sounds really promising!).
Here is the direct translation of the ingredient list from the original recipe, plus my own comments on each one of them. This recipe fills a 6 quart pan to the brim! That’s a lot of, or even too much sauce! I personally half this recipe, which is still a lot, but because I send it out as gift as well. I do not have a recommendation on how much YOU should make, the math is pretty straight forward.
Shallots 200 grams
Garlic 200 grams – yawn…
Fresh Thai red chilis 200 grams – They are pretty easy to find nowadays. Always test your chilis. Not every batch is the same. I also find that this amount of chilis can be too much for some, although I think it provides a good punch. Extra whole, cleaned, and de-stemmed chilis store beautifully frozen in a ziploc bag.
Soybean oil 3000 grams – I am always under the impression that restaurants use soybean oil because of its (low) cost. I am not sure if it has any other specific desired quality for this recipe. Maybe it’s the least flavorful oil out there? I don’t know. I use peanut oil for its delicious nuttiness. I would say you can substitute with another nut oil. I use 1/3 less than this amount. When it cools, the sauce turns into more of a paste consistency. Oil is essential to keep everything submerged and safe. While I know I can finish a jar in a day if I allow this to happen so storage is not a concern for me, YMMV.
Dried shrimps 600 grams – These are pantry staple in many Asian kitchens. Did you know that there are plenty of dried shrimps produced in the US of A? Yep, dried shrimp from the coast of Louisiana, which also means they are probably available online. Leftover ones will work wonderfully in seafood stock, in other dishes that can use a little umami, or even as a snack!
Dried scallops 600 grams – Dried scallops, one of the main ingredients of this recipe, are expensive. Hopefully my other post contains enough information before you venture out to get some. Please try really hard not to reduce the amount or substitute with god-forbid fresh/frozen scallops. The reality is you are most likely only going to start with a smaller amount, which probably will end up costing less than your monthly phone bill. Sometimes I cheat by mixing cheaper grade with more expensive ones.
Chinese Jinhua ham 1000 grams – I was watching an Asian cooking show and the chef was making a dish using Jinhua ham. The prep work sounded a little counter-intuitive to me. He said the ham should be soaked and steamed in a light syrup made of honey and maltose to draw out the excessive saltiness and introduce sweetness into the meat. Well, we do not need to specifically sweeten the meat, and there is already another alternative that is not “excessively salty” – the wonderful Italian prosciutto! Soft, buttery, and just the right amount of saltiness. I hope you have easy access to prosciutto end pieces as well! Remove the rind and excess fat, and dice it into cubes of about 1/2 inch in size. It does not have to be exact because it will go through the food processor later on. Since there is more moisture in prosciutto (softer), I use about 5% more.
I think other aged and cured ham may work too. I like to use leaner cuts of meat. I can imagine if you use a fattier cut, for example pancetta or bacon, the fat will be rendered out and there will not be as much “substance” left, and it may even throw the oil to solid ratio off-balanced. Smoked meat may provide an interesting twist?
Salted dried fish 300 grams – They are also available in most Chinese grocery stores. However, I substitute with anchovy fillets because I already have them in my pantry, so one less specialty item to buy. Since I use oil-packed fillets, I need to factor in the oil weight, so I put in 50% more.
You may see dried whole mackerels for dashi stock and be tempted. Please don’t, you have been warned. The black skin adds an unappetizing grayish tone to the sauce, which is not a big deal to be fair. However, they are usually not gutted and you will end up with tiny pieces of black stuff after being ground. If you still insist on using them, please take the time to remove the heads first. The eyeballs will not be ground finely enough. Don’t ask me how I know.
Dried shrimp roes 200 grams – I have not been able to find this in my local Chinatown. Maybe it is available in other bigger metropolitans. I have been replacing it with shrimp paste of half the amount. If you really cannot find either, I think it is ok to skip. However, there were times I would forget to put in the shrimp paste before I did a final taste test and thought it was missing something. Nevertheless, it will still be tasty without.
Red pepper powder 200 grams – Use the sweet kind, like paprika. Chef said it contributes to the color.
Sugar (not in the original recipe) – For something this intensely savory and spicy, sugar makes it even more magical. However, I am not sure why Chef does not use it. I recommend starting with 2 tbsp for this recipe and adjust to taste.
Most of the mincing work is done by food processor. If you do not own one, of course you can use a good old knife, but I will be sorry for your hands. I have to be honest, if I did not have an FP, I would not even think about making the sauce. I am a wimp.
Group the ingredients.
1) Garlic, chilis, and shallot.
2) Prosciutto and anchovies.
3) Dried shrimp (and shrimp roes if using).
4) Dried scallops.
5) Shrimp paste and paprika if using.
Mince group 1, 2, and 3 in the food processor separately. I like to grind the sticky ingredients first and the dry ones later to mop up every droplet and smear of essence that is stuck in the bowl. But really, go with whatever order you like, this is totally irrelevant. The size of the mince depends on your taste – chunky or smooth?
The dried scallops have to be shredded. You need to reconstitute them in water until they are soft enough to be pulled apart into threads like pulled pork. It is desired to be able to see the scallop threads in the sauce, so it should be done by hand. You can most certainly just throw them into the food processor. However, you still need to soak until they are reasonably pliable or risk breaking your FP. I try to use as little water as needed to get the job done. I do not want to lose any of the umami flavor (read $$$) to the soaking water.
Chef Ho said in the recipe “to steam the scallops for 50 mins. Let cool, before shredding”. In another interview, he suggested that the scallops should be soaked for 1-2 hours before steaming. I am not 100% certain on the purpose of steaming them. However, I find that they are easier to be shredded into finer threads afterwards. You also need to remove the tough muscle from each scallop. Just throw the tough pieces into the FP with other ingredients. Try to shred them as finely as possible. The big pieces of scallops will become chewy after the moisture is being cooked out.
So now everything is minced or shredded…
The ingredients are cooked in oil at a pretty low temperature. Ingredients do not become crispy. You will need to keep stirring until it is done. Chef Ho suggested flash-frying half of the ingredients separately so that the sauce contains something toothsome. It sounds like a nice touch. Feel free to follow this step. I don’t, because I’m lazy.
The order of ingredients goes from the ones that take the longest to the shortest time to cook. My order is group 2, 1+5, 4, and 3. Chef Ho’s order is completely different, but then our ingredients are not exactly the same either. His order is 1) Shallot and garlic, 2) Dried shrimp, 3) Ham and dried scallops, 4) Shrimp roes, red pepper powder, Thai chilis, and salted fish.
Wait until the color slightly deepens before adding the next group. The whole process takes about 20-30 mins. The sauce should end up having a beautiful bright amber hue. Once the sauce is done, turn off the heat and add the sugar.
This is a 3-quart pan with reduced oil.
Once the sauce completely cools, you can portion and store it in glass containers. Keep only what you use in the fridge and store the rest in the freezer. The relative small amount of garlic and shallots, compared to some other recipes you may find, helps it stay unspoiled. At our home, it is being consumed at such a speed that spoilage, pffft, is never being considered.