So, as much as I’d hoped “XO Sauce” meant “Hugs and Kisses Sauce,” it apparently does not (I checked). In fact, I got as far into this sauce’s history as the internet and several trusted sources would allow.
I ate a lot of XO Sauce during my year in Richmond, and picked up a few facts about it here and there, such as the general ingredients used to make it. I didn’t, however, know much about its origins until I wrote this post. The biggest revelation? That it’s only slightly older than me! I’d assumed it dated back centuries, and was the favourite sauce of one emperor or another, when in fact it was born in the 80’s, and has risen to culinary prominence in just several decades.
It was first created in Hong Kong and named for a sought after liqueur of the time, XO (“extra old”) Cognac. No hugs and kisses in the name choice, just an intentional link to the luxurious. The fancy name is backed by fancy ingredients, and while they vary according to who’s making it (each chef/restaurant have their own ‘signature’ sauce), ingredients generally include shallots, dried shrimp, dried scallops, Chinese (Jinhua) ham, chilies, oil, salt, garlic, and ginger. Because the shrimp and scallops are so pricey, they are visually prominent in the most ‘luxurious’ of XO sauces.
While some restaurants’ XO’s are spicier than others, they all provide meals with a boost of salty, spicy, rich umami flavour. During 365 Days of Dining, while I may not have known much about its history, I did know I loved XO, and was pleased every time I saw a bowl of it placed on the table. As Lee Man (one of the Chinese Restaurant Awards’ very knowledgeable judges) informed me, you can tell a restaurant values their customers when they serve XO sauce without being asked.
If I had to sum up XO in just one phrase, I’d say it’s like a flavour punch to the face, but the kind of punch you actually want. How do others describe it? Vogue China calls XO sauce the “Caviar of the East” (I would add “but better”), and in the title of his of Grub Street article on the subject, Ian Knauer asks, “Is XO Sauce the World’s Most Baller Condiment?” Yes, Ian, it probably is. Knauer tells his readers to treat it like a “super-powered soy sauce,” and he’s right. A spoonful of XO can transform the most regular of foods into the most extraordinary of meals. Rice is plain, but rice + XO = FLAVOUR PUNCH TO THE FACE.
So, where can you find XO sauce in Richmond? Good news – EVERYWHERE! Most seafood restaurants make their own, which they serve as a condiment or feature in one or more of their dishes. My favourite dish that incorporates XO (perhaps one of my favourite dishes of all time) is pan-fried turnip cakes with XO sauce; excellent versions can be found at both Sea Harbour and Empire Chinese Restaurant.
On the recommendation of Lee, I also went and tried the sauce at Golden Paramount restaurant, where they use fewer chilies in their recipe. Unlike many other sauces I’ve seen, it was a golden colour (rather than red), very fresh-tasting, and only mildly spicy.
It’s pretty much universally agreed that the best XO sauces are either made at home or in a restaurant, and that store-bought versions always come second.
They’re still tasty, however, so I bought two and did a taste test – Osaka Market, by the way, has an impressive selection, including “salmon XO sauce” and “olive oil XO sauce.”
Of the two I purchased, the first was The Most Baller Store-Bought Version I Could Find, which cost $18.99 for 160 grams and is made in Hong Kong by Mei-Xin.
The second is by Lee Kum Kee, and cost $6.99 for 80 grams.
The ingredients in both are similar, however Mei-Xin’s included sesame oil as well as canola, shrimp roe, and paprika powder, while Lee Kum Kee’s ingredient list included yeast extract, fermented bean paste, and maltodextrin. If I’d purchased the equivalent weight of Mei-Xin jar, the Lee Kum Kee would have cost about $14 (still less).
I tried them both on their own and with plain brown rice. The verdict? If you’re going to buy XO sauce, it pays to pay more. The Lee Kum Kee sauce was practically pureed, and basically tasted like a mild, slightly seafood-y chili sauce. It didn’t do much for me.
The Mei-Xin sauce, on the other hand, was much spicier, full of shrimp and scallops, and texturely diverse.
And, as I dug a spoon in to stir it up, an enormous scallop rose to the top like a golden nugget. It’s basically Mei-Xin’s way of saying, “See? That $18.99 you just spent on a small jar of sauce was TOTALLY WORTH IT!”
And if you’re looking to find the best restaurant sauces in Richmond? For the most ‘showy’ of sauces, take Lee’s advice and try Sea Harbour or Chef Tony’s, while Fernando Medrano (another Chinese Restaurant Awards judge) recommends Red Star, Sea Harbour, and Jade as his favourites. Try eating your way through them all!