XO Sauce – XOXO!

Peninsula Hong Kong

If you’re like me, you crave umami flavors from time to time. Umami is the 5th primary taste, next to sweet, sour, salty and bitter. It’s the complex savory taste typically found in foods that are salted, fermented or cured. If ever there was a cooked dish that represented the ultimate in Umami flavors, XO sauce is it.

The Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong is often credited with inventing it in the early 80’s, naming it after the high quality Hennessy XO Cognac.  This exclusive relish-like condiment was initially served to valued customers in high-end Cantonese restaurants.

Although its still fairly new, this addicting savory sauce is intensely complex and has become an indispensable condiment in a Chinese restaurant kitchen. Due to the high quality ingredients used to make it, XO is expensive and is typically served only upon request at a Chinese restaurant or used as a flavor enhancer for specific dishes.

Red Fresno Chili (Photo: Farina's Asian Pantry App)

The primary ingredients in XO sauce are dried scallops (also known as conpoy), dried shrimp, salted Yunan ham, fresh and dried chiles and chopped shallots, ginger and garlic. When fried slowly in oil, the dried savory ingredients release their concentrated flavors until the mixture develops into an intense thick glossy “sambal” (chili paste) that packs a punch.

Chinese Ginger (Source: Farina's Asian Pantry App)

I’ve tried a number of commercially made XO sauces, but have always found them to be expensive, overly salty and gloppy in texture. So I tried my hand in making my own recipe with handpicked ingredients, realizing it’s well worth spending the money and taking the time to make this indulgent condiment. XO is delicious served as a dipping sauce with dumplings, tossed together with fried noodles, or simply served as a table condiment. To help keep the cost of your ingredients to a minimum, be sure to choose small lesser grade dried scallops (ranging anywhere from $15 to $45 an ounce). Prosciutto or Virginia ham are also fine substitutes for the hard-to-find Yunnan ham.

So next time, add a dollop of XO sauce to your stir-fry and bring your dish to the next level. This tasty condiment will be the “go to” jar in your fridge when you need to satiate that umami craving. I hope you enjoy my customized XO Sauce recipe below.

XO Sauce


2 oz small dried scallops, rinsed
4 oz small dried shrimp, rinsed
1 cup canola oil
4 oz Virginia ham or prosciutto, minced
1/2 cup peeled and minced shallots
1/4 cup minced garlic
1 tablespoon grated ginger
6 fresh red chiles (red fresno or cayenne), seeded and minced
6 dried red chiles, seeded, reconstituted and minced
1 tablespoon shrimp paste
1 tablespoon brown sugar


Place the dried scallops and shrimp in 2 separate small bowls. Pour enough boiling water into each bowl to cover the dried seafood. Let soak for at least 1 hour.

Preheat an oven to 400º F. Wrap 1 tablespoon of shrimp paste with a square of foil and roast in the oven until fragrant, 10 to 12 minutes.

Once the scallops and shrimp are pliable, strain the seafood and reserve the soaking liquid . Use your fingers to shred the scallops into very fine pieces and use a knife to finely chop the reconstituted shrimp. Pat the scallops and shrimp dry.

Heat a wok or medium saute pan to medium. Once the pan is hot, add 1/2 cup of oil to the pan and fry the scallops and shrimp until very crisp, 5 to 7 minutes. Place a fine sieve over a dry bowl and pour the entire contents on the pan into the sieve and let drain (reserve the oil).

Wipe out the wok and reheat to medium-low. Add 1/4 cup of oil to the hot pan and add the shallots and saute continuously until they are golden brown, 7 to 10 minutes. Stir in the ginger and garlic, continuing to saute for another 5 minutes. Stir in the ham and chiles and stir-fry for until the ham is just crisp, 5 minutes. Strain all the ingredients through the same sieve, remembering to reserve the oil

Wipe out the pan and reheat the pan over medium-high heat and add remaining 1/4 cup of oil. Stir in the roasted shrimp paste and fry until very fragrant, 5 minutes. Return all the fried ingredients to the pan, add the sugar, reduce the heat to medium-low and stir-fry all together until very fragrant. Add 1/2 cup of the reserved seafood soaking liquid continue to simmer the ingredients until the sauce is fairly dry, but not burnt, 5 to 7 minutes.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the mixture to a dry sterilized jar, filling the jar 3/4 from the top. Strain the reserved oil into the jar with enough to cover the dry ingredients. The XO sauce will keep for 1 month refrigerated.

Makes 3 cups.