XO sauce originated in Hong Kong in the 1980s and is usually credited to Spring Moon restaurant at the Peninsula Hotel. Although the sauce was named after the “XO” (extra old) designation for expensive, aged Cognacs, it doesn’t contain any of its namesake alcohol. The “XO” reflects the luxurious nature of this umami-rich sauce, made with top-quality and expensive ingredients, such as dried scallops, dried shrimp and premium Jinhua ham. You can source dried scallops and shrimp online or at local Chinese markets. Jinhua ham is not available in the United States, but you can use other Chinese-style cured hams; American country hams such as Smithfield ham or Virginia ham make good substitutes. This recipe streamlines some of the process: the ingredients are fried in stages (instead of fried individually then removed from the oil), and a food processor replaces a lot of the knife work. However, the end result is still a satisfyingly salty, sweet, and complex sauce with a little bit of heat. Serve it on fried rice, stir-fried noodles, sauteed vegetables, seafood, chicken, even plain rice—any time you want to add some depth and complexity to a dish. It tastes delicious on just about anything!
Place the dried scallops and shrimp in separate medium heatproof bowls. Add enough of the boiling water to each bowl to cover the seafood by at least 1 inch. Let sit until softened, about 2 hours.
Drain the scallops and shrimp separately, reserving the soaking liquid. Place the scallops in a food processor and pulse until shredded into fine strands, 6 to 8 times; scrape out and transfer to a bowl. Next, finely chop the shrimp in the food processor, about 12 pulses; transfer to a separate bowl. If the seafood is overly wet, transfer each to a separate paper towel-lined plate and blot dry before frying.
Wipe out the food processor bowl and add the shallots, garlic, ginger and Thai chiles; pulse until very finely chopped, but not a paste, about 8 pulses, scraping down the bowl as needed; set aside.
Mix 1 cup of the reserved soaking liquid with the Shaoxing wine, oyster sauce, soy sauce, brown sugar and chile powder in a measuring cup or bowl; set aside.
Heat the oil in a large wok, Dutch oven or high-sided pot over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot (dip a wooden handle or chopstick and the oil should start bubbling around it right away), reduce the heat to medium then carefully add the scallops a handful at a time at first to make sure the oil doesn’t pop or splatter. Stir frequently, scraping the bottom occasionally, until golden brown, about 4 minutes. (The oil will get very foamy and bubble up from time to time, especially when you first add an ingredient, since a lot of moisture is cooking off.) Add the shrimp and cook, stirring often, until golden brown, about 12 minutes. Add the ham and cook, stirring often, until crisp and slightly darker, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the shallot mixture and cook, stirring often, until golden brown, about 12 minutes. Finally, add the liquid mixture to the oil and bring to a boil; adjust the heat to maintain a simmer and cook until mostly dry and the oil separates to the top, 8 to 10 minutes.
Let cool completely. Transfer to a heatproof airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
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