The term XO—that’s “extra old” in liquor lingo—gets applied to luxury bottles of cognac. XO sauce, on the other hand, contains no cognac and isn’t aged. The seafood-studded relish is, however, luxurious enough to warrant association.
Cantonese households in Hong Kong are behind this spicy, fancy flavor-bomb. Hong Kong’s elite have a history of fetishizing cognac, so when a chef packaged and labeled his creation “XO sauce” in the 1980s, the crowds went wild. Whole diver scallops, which can cost upwards of $50 per pound, are the signature ingredient that earn this saucy sensation its expensive name. According to fans, the mollusks taste like “bacon bits from the sea” when dried. Some restaurants further amplify XO’s status by adding other aquatic delicacies to the mix, such as cod roe or baby anchovies. Traditionally, Chinese home cooks gave the condiment its depth by pan-frying the dried scallops with shrimp, chilis, cured ham, shallots, and garlic to toasty, savory perfection. Tasters say the finished product is incredibly fragrant and savory, with ocean-y hints that are milder than other Asian fish sauces.
But followers insist that XO’s real power lies in its ability to transform meat and vegetables, bringing out sweet, salty, and savory elements in dishes that would otherwise lack a dynamic range. You can find bottled XO sauce in stores, but many insist that the finest iterations—those truly worthy of their designation—are made at home after a trip to the Chinese supermarket.
Where to Try It
This Macanese eatery highlights the island's global influences and is known for their use of XO sauce.
This Michelin starred restaurant in Hong Kong is famous for its XO sauce.