“I first came across XO sauce 30 years ago. After all these years, everyone knows what’s in there and everyone tries to refine it. It’s really difficult to determine who made it first or which is the most authentic,” he said.
According to Ho, XO sauce made its first appearance in the 1980s in upscale Cantonese restaurants. Legend has it that it was inspired by the Malaysian shrimp paste, belacan. Its name is believed to be derived from the label of premium cognac, which indicates the expensive ingredients it contains, though no one can say for sure. There is no actual cognac in the sauce.
Likewise for Ho’s XO sauce. It’s the fruit of decades of thought and refinement.
“With the sauce we make, the ingredients are first steamed, then we would take half of them to deep-fry briefly. That helps to add some chew to the cured ham and dried scallop without making them too hard unlike if they’re fried all the way through. At the same time, we put less shallot and garlic inside so it can keep for longer. The most important thing is that there is no colouring and little seasoning in the sauce. It maintains a natural hue and flavour,” Ho explained.
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The usage of XO sauce is limitless. It goes well with fresh scallop, squid and prawn in a stir-fry, the quintessential style of Cantonese cooking. It can even be stir-fried with rice noodle rolls or rice noodles with sliced beef. Many people would also serve it as a dipping sauce for hot pot. Ho’s personal favourite is stirring the XO sauce into egg noodles.
“The grouper is the most delicious when 80 to 90% cooked. Its flesh will fall apart if you overcook it. Depending on what you like, chicken, pork, beef and prawn are good options too,” Ho said, also emphasising that the XO sauce should only be added at the later stage. “XO sauce is cooked as it is, so you only need to stir it in after all other ingredients are cooked. You don’t want it to burn, losing all its fragrance, colour and having it stuck at the bottom of the wok.”
Stir-Fried Grouper And Mushrooms With XO Sauce
70g wild portobello mushrooms, cleaned and thinly sliced
750g celery, cut into short sticks
1 tbsp XO sauce
Seasoning: a little salt, sugar, oil and cornstarch
1. Prepare the grouper with a little salt and cornstarch.
2. Heat a wok with a tablespoon of minced garlic and spring onion. As it gets aromatic, throw in the celery, seasoning with oil, salt and sugar. Remove the celery and set aside.
3. Add a little oil and salt along with the mushrooms in the wok, frying them to golden on both sides. Set aside the mushrooms.
4. Lower the heat to slow. Add the grouper and oil and stir-fry until the fish is 60% cooked and turning white.
5. Add the celery and mushrooms back into the wok and quickly stir-fry together. Add the XO sauce. Give it a quick stir and serve.