I think I might have been asleep on the job because I didn’t pick up on the main ingredient in this week’s recipe for years, and I wish I had been paying more attention when I did.
In the food world, it is often the case that something new comes along and everybody suddenly makes out that this brand new thing, which you have only just heard of, has been around pretty much forever.
I’m thinking of the way something like ’nduja is suddenly everywhere before you know it. I had been cooking Italian food for years; I’d been to Italy almost every year for a food-centric holiday… and yet I had never heard of it. Then, suddenly, someone comes back from Calabria in the deep south of Italy with this new soft spicy sausage, and everyone pretends they knew about it all the time.
Burrata was another one. Everyone was familiar with mozzarella, but nobody knew about its creamy Pugliese cousin. Then one day it’s on every menu and you have to ask, slightly embarrassedly, what it is.
This is what happened to me with regard to XO sauce. Around 2005, I started to see it appear on menus in very good restaurants. I assumed it must be based on brandy, as the term XO is part of the classification for cognac, along with VS and VSOP. We are all familiar with VSOP (very special old pales). XO (extra old) is the top of the range, denoting 10 years’ ageing – making a sauce with it might seem extravagant and a bit wasteful.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The sauce was named after the cognac but in a different sense than I had imagined. In colonial Hong Kong, the sauce’s place of origin (the source of the sauce), the term XO had come to stand for the very best, tip-top, crème de la crème of anything, so XO sauce was fine and luxurious – but no cognac was harmed in its making.
In fact it is a rich, decadent relish for which many expensive ingredients are fried separately until each reaches its peak flavour, then removed from the pan, placed in a jar and covered, right at the end, in the oil which has been used to cook everything. It includes dried scallops, dried shrimps and jinhua ham (this is a little like parma ham), which combine into a massive hit of umami which can be spooned into sauces, or used to dress noodles – or jazz up leftover chicken, as in the recipe below. In fact, it is such a great relish that a very quick lunch can be achieved by pouring some boiling water on some very fine noodles to soften them and then, after draining, just stirring in a spoonful.
Although I kept seeing XO on menus I hadn’t actually tried it until quite recently. I was in my local Asian supermarket stocking up on nori, soy sauce, shaoxing rice wine and mirin and I spotted a jar. I used it to dress some stir-fried vegetables and was immediately hooked. The flavour was new, but somehow familiar too, and completely addictive. This is what umami – the fifth taste – does to you: think of those cheesy biscuits you start eating and before you know it you have almost finished the packet.
If you were hoping that this magical sauce was an authentically ancient Chinese recipe, handed down on scrolls, then I am sorry to disappoint you. It was invented in Hong Kong in the 1980s by chefs who were trying to outdo themselves with the amount of luxury (and umami) that they could pack into one sauce. Each restaurant would have its own version. It was a time of yuppies and excess in everything and this relish reflects that. So, try this XO sauce. For old times’ sake.