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Sauced Up: A history of Hong Kong’s home-grown XO sauces

By Catharina Cheung 12 May 2020

Header images courtesy of @adamliaw (Instagram)

Confucius said, “Do not eat if sauces and seasonings are not correctly prepared.” Yes, we’re not joking. Most people know him as the great Chinese philosopher and thinker whose words shaped a huge part of Chinese ethics and beliefs, but few know that the man was also a huge foodie.

He was also absolutely correct in his insistence on the right condiments being used in cooking—seasoning can make or break a dish! We’ve already explored Hong Kong’s homegrown soy sauces and oyster sauces in this series, and this new instalment deals with the savoury and slightly spicy XO sauce.

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Unlike soy sauce and oyster sauce, which were developed in southern mainland China then popularised in Hong Kong, XO sauce is completely homegrown in this city. Created in the 1980s specifically to match Cantonese cuisine, it is similar to the Fujianese sha cha sauce, containing garlic, onions, chilli, and a variety of dried seafood.

While only hearsay, it’s widely believed that Spring Moon, the fine-dining Cantonese restaurant in the prestigious Peninsula Hotel, created this sauce as a complimentary condiment placed on their tables. Customers fell in love with this homemade sauce and started asking if they could buy it, so Spring Moon began selling them by the bottle.

According to Gordon Leung, the executive chef at Spring Moon, the sauce’s unusually foreign name is derived from XO (extra-old) cognac, a liquor popular in Hong Kong and considered a chic luxury product. This reference is obviously used to emphasise the high quality of the sauce, as well as the mixture of pricey ingredients it contains.

Photo: @leekumkeeglobal (Instagram)

Lee Kum Kee

This is probably the most easily accessible brand of XO sauce out there, readily available in supermarkets. Consisting of a lot of dried scallops (conpoy), there’s plenty to munch on with this version of the sauce, and so it’ll add some interesting textures to your dishes. Fans of spice will like Lee Kum Kee’s XO sauce as it’s one of the spicier recipes but it doesn’t have as much of the dried seafood flavours.

Photo: Mrs So’s XO Sauce

Mrs So’s

This is a family-run boutique brand that still makes its products in Hong Kong. As the story goes, Mrs So used to run a printing factory and had a resident chef who would make their own XO sauce. After serving it to her guests and receiving copious compliments, she was persuaded to set up a shop selling the sauce. It contains a lot of shrimp paste, which lends to its strong flavour.

Pat Chun

Though this brand is more famous for its sweet vinegar, its XO sauce is also of good quality. It’s not very spicy at all, but has more umami tones and is a well-balanced sauce. Pat Chun even uses Japanese scallops, so if you like seafood and conpoy, this is the variety to go for. Visit one of Pat Chun’s stores—in Central, Mong Kok, Yau Ma Tei, or Shau Kei Wan—to purchase directly, or head to their online shop.

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Photo: @yungkeehk (Instagram)

Yung Kee

The culinary landmark in Central is not only famous for their roast goose; they also make their own XO sauce. Instead of having a lot of conpoy as is the case with most other brands, Yung Kee’s variety has more shrimp paste so the sauce is intense in its savoury flavours. Add this to your dishes little by little because on top of being moreish, it’s also fairly spicy and could easily overwhelm other flavours.

Photo: @nicoleskitchen_hk

Nicole’s Kitchen

While not one of Hong Kong’s old traditional brands, Nicole’s Kitchen produces a range of artisanal sauces made with high-quality ingredients. Their XO sauce contained Japanese sakura shrimp, Hokkaido conpoy, locally produced shrimp skin, shrimp roe, jinhua ham, and more. Keeping in line with its rather bougie branding, you can find this sauce in upscale supermarkets such as City’super or sometimes in Eslite.

Photo: Jousun

Yio Farm

If you’re on a vegetarian diet and have been shaking your head in sadness so far, Yio Farm has your back. Who knew even a largely animal-based sauce such as XO can be made to suit vegetarianism? Instead of seafood, Yio Farm uses a mix of enoki mushrooms, cordyceps flowers, and shiitake mushroom roots to recreate the texture of conpoy. Its XO sauce is even quaintly cooked on firewood for hours.

Photo: The Peninsula Hotels

Spring Moon

Have a taste of the OG XO sauce from the Peninsula Hotel! Of course, the recipe is a jealously guarded secret, but the concoction does contain a gourmet blend of dried scallops, shallots, garlic, chilli, dried shrimp, shrimp roe, and other flavourful delicacies. Spring Moon has branded it as the “Caviar of the East” and understandably, it also carries a premium price tag of $395 per jar!

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XO sauce in foods

Because the sauce is savoury, full of umami, and spicy enough to give a little kick, it goes well with most Chinese dishes, especially on top of stir-fries. XO sauce has also become a staple for dim sum, going well with cheung fun, har gau, and the like. There is even a dim sum dish that uses XO sauce as one of its main ingredients: the XO sauce-fried turnip cake—a particular favourite within the Localiiz team.

XO sauce also works well in fried rice and lo mein dishes and is delicious even with plain vegetables. Because of its seafood ingredients, it also tends to complement seafood very well. This is a magic sauce that brings out and heightens flavours in foods, so don’t be surprised if you eat much more than you were intending to!

Making XO sauce

There is no standardised recipe for XO sauce, but they all contain shrimp and shredded scallop soaking in a fiery red oil that looks more lethal than it tastes. In general, the way to make XO sauce is as follows:

  1. Seafood ingredients such as scallops, shrimp, and dried goods are washed, steamed, and rehydrated by soaking overnight.
  2. Other ingredients like jinhua ham, shallots, garlic, and fresh and dried chillies are then chopped finely.
  3. Some recipes will jazz up their sauces by adding salted fish, onions, anchovies, or even fancy ingredients such as spicy cod roe and abalone.
  4. All ingredients have to be fried individually because they each have different cooking times.
  5. The temperature is kept low while frying and a close eye has to be kept on the wok at all times because the flavours of the ingredients will not emerge sufficiently if not cooked thoroughly. If they end up overcooked, the sauce will take on a burnt, bitter taste.
  6. The ingredients are then put together with the oil used in frying them, then mixed with a bit of sugar and chicken stock.

As you can tell, making XO sauce is a labour-intensive process that takes a lot of time. Chef Ming Yu of Wing Lei restaurant in Wynn Las Vegas makes his own XO sauce in-house, and it reportedly takes him approximately eight hours to produce a batch from scratch. The ingredients are easy enough to get in Hong Kong, so it is possible to make your own at home, but it’s controlling the temperature and timing while frying that’s the tricky part. If you manage to whip up a nice batch, send a bottle to the Localiiz office!

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Catharina Cheung

Senior editor

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.