(Update 4/19/19 - Red Hot Kitchen’s XO sauce recipe has been featured in The New York Times Magazine! Sam Sifton also urges you to make it in the Times’ What to Cook This Week, on Facebook, and Twitter. What are you waiting for? :) If you like heat and umami, give it a try!)
Red Hot Kitchen has had quite the journey in the last few weeks! Since its February release, I’ve been fortunate to have participated in radio shows and podcasts, spoken at bookstore events and lectures, and been featured on a number of food and design sites. The IRL and virtual book tour continues...I have upcoming events at Omnivore Books and Book Passage the first weekend in April, and an event at the Museum of Chinese in America in late April. Not to mention the usual schedule of cooking classes! (Come say hi at an event or class!)
Since the book launch, I’ve noticed that all nine of the hot sauces featured in Red Hot Kitchen have their own fans, but one chili sauce in particular has drawn a group of new, very excited converts: XO sauce. There were many people who hadn’t really heard of XO sauce before. After all, it’s not THE gateway Asian hot sauce that everyone knows and loves (Sriracha), nor one of the increasingly popular condiments that’s getting more and more attention in the U.S. (gochujang, sambal oelek, Sichuan chili oil). Often, even if someone had heard of XO sauce before, or tried it in a Chinese restaurant, they didn’t really know what ingredients are in it.
But hopefully word is getting out about this underrated chili paste! Since the launch, Salon TV did a segment with me on making XO sauce, Edible Brooklyn showcased my Vegan XO Sauce, and PureWow featured my Stir-Fried Rice Cakes with XO Sauce. I also fielded many questions about it on WNYC’s All of It with Alison, Heritage Radio Network’s Eat Your Words, my launch event at Books are Magic (also recorded for TASTE’s podcast), the Asian Chili Sauce Lecture and Tasting at Brooklyn Brainery, and Masters of Social Gastronomy: Burnin’ Down the Mouth. A few people even went home from my Books are Magic event and immediately made regular and vegan versions of the XO sauce (the highest compliment ever!)
Now, I’m probably not supposed to choose a favorite of the nine hot sauces (it’s like choosing a favorite from your nine children, right?!?) but I will go on the record right now and say that XO sauce would be my desert island hot sauce. Why? Many people think of advancing their hot sauce knowledge through training their lungs and esophagi to adapt to increasingly spicier sauces. I prefer to skip the capsaicin one-upmanship. Instead, the more spicy food I eat, the more I find myself craving more complex and deeper flavors to go with the heat. There are many instances when Sriracha, sambal oelek, or sweet chili sauce would be the perfect addition to a dish. But when you want a hot sauce that has insanely rich umami flavors while also packing heat, XO sauce is the one to reach for.
So what exactly is XO sauce? Well, it’s the youngest hot sauce of the nine featured in Red Hot Kitchen, developed in Hong Kong in the late 80s and 90s by restaurant chefs. “XO” is Hong Kong slang for extra-old brandy and gives off the idea of something luxurious. Pretty much every restaurant or XO sauce maker in Hong Kong has their own recipe, but most of them include dried scallops, dried shrimp, and Jinhua ham. Dried scallops are prized in Cantonese cooking and are used in many soups and braises, especially at banquet dinners. Jinhua ham is also a delicacy, with a flavor similar to jamon serrano or prosciutto (you can’t find it in the US, so I use smoked bacon as a substitute). Dried shrimp isn’t as pricy as the previous two, but it’s still prized for the briny flavor. Small (6 to 8 ounce) jars of XO sauce in Hong Kong can run you between $25 and $70 USD.
(Vegans/Vegetarians: I got you covered. My vegan XO sauce made with some key umami-rich ingredients was a hit at recent tastings!)
Of course, cooking at home is always better quality- and cost-wise, and you can make an quart-size jar of XO sauce at home at a fraction of the price. (I use small scallops or shredded scallops, which are very affordable, instead of the crazy pricey large whole ones that people mainly give for wedding gifts.) Even though it takes a bit longer to put together (about an hour), the absolute best part about making XO sauce is that once you have it, you will need very few other ingredients to enjoy a fabulous meal. It’s so flavor-packed that you really need just a few fresh ingredients to mix with the XO sauce.
Now, what do you do with it? SO MANY THINGS. In Red Hot Kitchen, I have recipes for noodles, chicken stir-fries, steamed fish, veggies, a flatbread pizza, and more. But honestly, you can use it for anything your umami-loving heart desires. Examples:
Throw it on plain steamed rice
Scramble eggs with it
Stuff it in dumplings or spring rolls
Add it to your late-night ramen
Stir it with into a turkey or vegetable chile
Roast your favorite vegetable with it
Bake nachos with it
What you can do with XO sauce is limited only by your imagination, and I know Appetite for China readers don’t have limited imaginations!
You can get the full recipes from Red Hot Kitchen for XO sauce via Salon (XO sauce recipe is after the Rice Cakes recipe), and for Vegan XO Sauce via Edible Brooklyn. Now that I’ve hopefully piqued your curiosity, what are some dishes you would love to try XO sauce with?