xo fish

I’ve long been a fan of XO sauce, possibly because Dim Sum Go Go restaurant in New York makes an amazing spicy-fishy-umami version to slather on its otherwise light and delicate shrimp dumplings. As a 1980s invention designed to connote luxury, it’s probably a terribly déclassé aspect of Hong Kong food culture, but I don’t care, I love it. Still, I’d never have thought to make it if not for a coincidental series of events. First, I was given the Momofuku cookbook for Christmas. It’s a fascinating read and a lovely book but incredibly cheffy: many of the recipes require you to have made a bone stock that takes three days and some special dashi before you even begin. It’s unapologetically impractical. But one thing did stand out – a recipe for XO sauce that required two things I just happened to have: lots of good quality dried shrimp and lots of good quality leftover ham. As it happened, I had a big bag of plump pink shrimp I’d brought back from Vietnam and a vacuum-sealed pack of 5-acorn Serrano ham scraps I brought from Barcelona. It was kismet! Thus began the XO sauce experiment.

Dried shrimp are pretty easy to come by in your local Asian store. Look for the biggest ones you can afford and try to select pink ones rather than brown, old-looking ones.

Viet shrimp

David Chang uses American country ham in his recipe but I barely know what that is and certainly don’t have access to it. Besides, not to besmirch the American ham tradition but we have Spanish ham over here, so you know…We bought this little bundle of joy in the main market in Barcelona – just €4 for a pack of ends chopped off of the giant pig legs hanging above. I was excited to find such a perfect use for it.

serrano ham 2

But one thing I didn’t have from the recipe was dried scallops. These are pretty expensive but I was willing to splash out a bit, since everything else I needed was incredibly cheap. Sadly, they were not to be found in Brighton’s Asian markets. I know you can buy them in London – and if I was willing to wait a while, they’re cheaper in New York – but I wanted to make XO sauce now, damnit! I decided to try an alternative: dried squid.

squid dried

This was a really beautiful dried whole squid, and on the whole I think it made a pretty decent cut-price alternative to the scallops. If you think about it, while squid doesn’t taste like scallops, they do offer somewhat similar pleasures. However, the squid did prove harder to wrangle than its fancier cousins. Here’s what I’ve learned – squid cannot be fluffed in a food processor. Even if you chop it up beforehand, it is comically resistant to blades. At one point I had to stop and unwind tentacles from the central axle of my mini-prep! Lesson learned: chop the squid by hand next time.

Anyway, you might be asking what’s the point of XO sauce? Its punchy savoury flavour livens up steamed vegetables, and pairs really well with white fish and seafood. It’s a great condiment for Asian food and it could be good with roast pork too. It lives in the fridge more or less forever, so if you make a batch, it’s a nice thing to have on hand for when the cupboards are bare. It’s intentionally dry and not really saucy, but if you melt a knob of butter, you can spoon in a dollop of XO and a glug of water to make a decadent sauce for vegetables.

Not Quite David Chang’s XO sauce 

  • 55g dried shrimp
  • 55g dried squid
  • 70g garlic cloves peeled
  • 50g ginger peeled
  • 140g Serrano ham scraps
  • 1tbsp dried chili flakes
  • 125ml vegetable oil

Combine the shrimp and squid in a bowl, cover with room temperature water and let sit out overnight to rehydrate. I will warn you that this is the point that your house will come to smell quite powerfully shrimpy. It doesn’t smell bad but good grief, it was strong.

The next day, process your garlic and ginger in a mini-prep until finely chopped. Scrape into a bowl. Now do the same with the shrimp – they’ll turn into a lovely fluff – and add to the bowl. If you have scallops, do the same but if you’re using squid, I found it better in the end to use a mezzaluna to chop them small. Lastly, fluff the ham in the mini-prep, but save it in a different bowl.

xo fluffs

Heat the oil in a frying pan and when it is quite hot, put in the ham and fry for 3-4 minutes until it is starting to darken in colour. Mmm, frying ham. This part smelled really really good.

frying ham

Next add the chili flakes and cook for another couple of minutes. Then turn the heat down low and add the rest of the ingredients. Cook over a very low heat for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. It should end up relatively dry and the garlic and ginger bits should be a golden colour.

xo in pan

It doesn’t look especially exciting but it tastes dynamite! To serve, I steamed a whole bream then topped with XO sauce, and for added deliciousness, stir fried a bunch of Chinese greens and added butter and XO sauce to the wok.