Chefs have swooned over XO for years. Pat Nourse ex­plores how it’s spilled be­yond its ori­gins.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Contents - For the most part XO re­mained in close prox­im­ity to rice and chop­sticks. But that’s no longer the case.

Dried oc­to­pus. Dried mackerel. Prawn eggs. The se­cret in­gre­di­ents of XO sauce are many and they are var­ied. But in Aus­tralia in 2018, our chefs, many of whom have long en­joyed a steady diet of XOen­riched Can­tonese food af­ter ser­vice, are find­ing ever-wider ap­pli­ca­tions for the sauce, just as they’re push­ing the envelope on what the sauce it­self com­prises. To­day’s Aus­tralian XO sauces can be veg­e­tar­ian or ve­gan, Indige­nous or Caribbean, yet they’re still iden­ti­fi­ably XO in ori­gin. What makes them tick?

By most es­ti­mates the orig­i­nal hasn’t been around much longer than 35 years, with most sources point­ing to a hand­ful of high-end Can­tonese restau­rants in Kowloon in the early

1980s as ground zero. You could be fairly cer­tain you wouldn’t find one thing in XO sauce, and that was Cognac. The “XO”, which stands for “ex­tra old” in the fancy-brandy trade, seems to have been ap­pro­pri­ated to sig­nify (or jus­tify) the cost.

In essence it’s a coarse, oily chilli sauce, en­riched and tex­tured by shred­ded dried seafood. Dried scal­lops are the con­stant in Can­tonese recipes for XO and, along with dry-cured ham and dried shrimp, two of the other more com­mon ad­di­tions, they give it umami-savour and weight.

These in­gre­di­ents also add sig­nif­i­cantly to the cost, with spe­cial­ist dried-seafood shops in Syd­ney’s Chi­na­town charg­ing as much as $688 a kilo for their bet­ter dried scal­lops.

But then a lit­tle bit of XO goes a long way. And it goes with just about every­thing. It’s good with oys­ters, pip­pies, scal­lops, prawns, abalone, fish, lob­ster, mud crab, snow crab, span­ner crab and yab­bies. It’s also good with bit­ter melon, broc­coli, green beans, tofu and eggs. You don’t of­ten see XO with lamb or pork, but it makes fast friends with both beef and chicken. It’s also very good with won­tons, noo­dles, rice cakes and rice.

Ap­pre­ci­a­tion of XO sauce in Aus­tralia can be first pegged to the at­ten­tion it re­ceived in the late 1980s at high-end Can­tonese restau­rants that had a close con­nec­tion with Hong Kong. At Flower Drum, in Melbourne, it was some­thing of an ob­ses­sion for then-owner Gil­bert Lau, who would fly to Hong Kong to source the dried seafood. At Syd­ney-land­mark Golden

Cen­tury, mean­while, the sig­na­ture dish has long been pip­pies stir-fried with XO sauce and served on a wodge of ver­mi­celli. The buzz be­came louder when gweilo chefs joined in on the act, says Melbourne-based Asian-food ex­pert Tony Tan. He re­calls teach­ing an XO mas­ter­class for An­drew McCon­nell and his chefs as early as 2000. “Once An­drew and Neil Perry in­tro­duced it to their menus, it re­ally took off,” says Tan. So much so, in fact, that Perry named the modern-Asian restau­rant he opened in Potts Point in 2000 af­ter the sauce. Kylie Kwong has had it on her menus at Billy Kwong since day one – most mem­o­rably, per­haps, with home-style fried eggs and tamari.

For the most part, XO sauce re­mained in close prox­im­ity to rice and chop­sticks. But that’s no longer the case. While the condi­ment is used in­ven­tively at the likes of Melbourne’s Sunda (with egg noo­dles, chicken crack­ling, and pep­per­berry) and Spice Tem­ple (stir-fried with morn­ing glory), it’s also find­ing its place out­side the con­text of Asian restau­rants. At Saint Peter in Syd­ney and Three Blue Ducks in Bris­bane, it’s de­ployed along broadly fa­mil­iar Chi­nese lines, with a coral trout head and as an XO but­ter with More­ton Bay bugs, re­spec­tively. But at The Press Club, Melbourne’s pre­mier con­tem­po­rary Greek fine-diner, chef Reuben Davis goes fur­ther, slip­ping XO sauce into a ho­ri­atiki of Clarence River prawns, melon and mint. At Bistro Black­wood in Ade­laide, XO joins the dots be­tween Brus­sels sprouts and bunya nuts, and at Bent­ley, Brent Sav­age teams it with squab. The menu at Mo­mo­fuku Seiobo, mean­while, fea­tures a “Caribbean XO”, which com­bines ha­banero chill­ies, shal­lots, gar­lic and gin­ger with salt cod, abalone and an­natto.

Seiobo’s Bar­ba­dos-born chef Paul Carmichael cre­ated his own ver­sion of XO ear­lier this year to ac­com­pany a take on ducana, a Caribbean sweet-po­tato dumpling. “I love XO’s depth and ver­sa­til­ity,” he says, and has since used it to sauce brisket, with cou cou, and in the restau­rant’s staff meals. “I even made a pizza with it.”

For Jock Zon­frillo, chef of Orana and Bistro Black­wood, the flavour of XO sauce is spe­cial, not sim­ply be­cause it’s in­tense, but be­cause it’s lay­ered. “The scal­lops, the shrimp, the ham, the fer­men­ta­tion, the chilli and the prawn roe are in­ter­est­ing in a dried form, but when you cook them down to­gether to a paste and let it out with a solid aged chilli oil, you’re left with a sauce that changes on the palate from start to fin­ish at least five times,” he says. “When you add that to a fresh in­gre­di­ent, be it veg­etable or pro­tein, both the sauce and in­gre­di­ent ben­e­fit from each other’s com­pany.” For one of his house XO vari­a­tions, which is ve­gan, Zon­frillo works to mimic those lay­ers by draw­ing on Orana’s bank of fresh and fer­mented Indige­nous in­gre­di­ents. “It’s in­tense, and not ve­gan-tast­ing at all thanks to the depth and com­plex­ity,” he says. “And be­cause of the cost of the na­tive stuff, it’s in keep­ing with the tra­di­tion of it be­ing su­per fuck­ing ex­pen­sive.”

But can you re­ally make a veg­e­tar­ian or ve­gan ver­sion of a sauce that is es­sen­tially de­fined by the pres­ence of dried shell­fish? There’s veg­e­tar­ian XO with silken tofu, pick­led long beans and mush­room floss at Queen Chow in Syd­ney, while a ve­gan XO dresses steamed tofu with white soy and roasted-chilli oil at Lee Ho Fook in Melbourne. “XO sauce is an oily dried scal­lop and prawn condi­ment,” rea­sons Vic­tor Liong, chef at Lee Ho Fook. “So the ve­gan ver­sion usu­ally tries to mimic the flossy tex­ture of the dried scal­lops.” Liong achieves this with shio kombu, sun-dried to­ma­toes and dried shi­itakes, up­ping the umami with mush­room-soy and other soy-based condi­ments.

For Paul Carmichael at Seiobo, XO sauce has a strong as­so­ci­a­tion with Aus­tralia. “I wanted a dish to con­nect the Caribbean to Syd­ney. I’d heard of XO be­fore I came here, but it was be­ing here that re­ally in­spired this ver­sion,” he says. “The next step is to get it into West In­dian homes.”

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