Chili Oil Supremacy - XO Sauce

Stephanie Yuen

My sister gave me a jar of home-made XO sauce she brought back from Hong Kong which we opened and consumed spoonfuls right away with my wok-fried vermicelli. What a mean jar of flavourful hot chili oil this Hong Kong friend of hers made!

When eating out Cantonese these days, don’t be surprised to see a charge of $3 or more added on to the bill for the XO sauce you asked for. There are exceptions of course, but you have to either be a regular customer, a VIP, a friend of the manager, the chef or the boss. 

A few fine dining restaurants do offer complimentary XO sauce but only at dinner time for obvious reason – to flatter you the paying customers who in fact are already paying for it indirectly without knowing so!

Some Chinese restaurants here are selling house-made XO sauce for around $15 to $20 per 250-300 gram jars.  Price tags on imported ones, available at Asian markets, are $10 to $25 each depending on the size, the producer and what ingredients are used. 

What is XO sauce? Why so expensive? 

XO Sauce

The name ‘XO’ is in fact a term borrowed from the same cognac label referring to the luxurious extra old age brandy.  This symbol of exquisite quality best defines the superbly prepared XO sauce filled with fine ingredients such as dried shrimp, dried scallop, cured ham and even abalone, the very same reason why it is regarded by as the supreme chili oil!

XO sauce’s rich flavour and versatility makes it the most sought after condiment in Cantonese restaurants. Quite often, it is the only sauce customers ask for and may have perhaps replaced other sauces including chili paste and mustard.  The demand and supply rule certainly applies here, all those fine ingredients do not come cheap! The time, labour and particular skill, plus the chef’s very own secret touch… all combine to put XO sauce in the gourmet category.  If there is such a sauce that compliments 90% of the food on Chinese and even other ethnic dinner tables, say with stews, meatloaf, pulled pork, pasta with tomato sauce, baked short ribs and roasted chicken, it’s got to be XO Sauce.  

XO sauce debuted in the 80’s as a marketing idea; a delicious lure created by top-ranked Cantonese chefs in Hong Kong.  In order to stay ahead in a fiercely competitive market, chefs have to constantly come up with new culinary concepts to please the diners.  Like food trends, majority of those concepts come and go, but XO sauce catches on and manages to stay forever.  “It is all about the ingredients, the colour and flavour that promise to sensationalize your palates.” Executive Chef Gordon Chan whose XO sauce calls for pre-ordering well in advance stated, “Good XO sauce with the right heat, is absolutely addictive!”

It took a few years before XO sauce came to Vancouver but soon after landing, it gained huge popularity.  Nowadays, chefs of most fine-dining Chinese seafood and dimsum restaurants are expected to come up with their own XO sauce to stay in the race and to keep customers happy.

The all-purpose chili oilChinese restaurants offering awesome XO sauce:

1/ Sun Sui Wah Restaurant (Richmond & Vancouver)

2/Empress Seafood Restaurant (Richmond)

3/ Hon’s Wunton House (Available in jars)

4/ Gingeri (Richmond)

5/ Rain Flower (Richmond)

6/ Red Star (Richmond & Vancouver)