One of the most memorable food experiences we had in Taiwan was learning about XO Sauce. I should say “discover”, really, because although we’ve crossed paths with XO Sauce before or, rather with many of its imitators, it was the first time that it made us gasp in excitement.
The XO Sauce Lady
It was our first day in Taiwan. We just came from the 89th and 90th floor observation decks of Taipei 101 and lunch at Din Tai Fung. At the basement level of Taipei 101, we were checking out the food court and the grocery beside it. Jasons Market. We had sampled the egg rolls and already bought six boxes. We were walking around, looking for mochi, when a lady approached us offering small paper cups. I was expecting tea but inside each cup was about a tablespoonful of rice with a heap of reddish threads on top. Speedy and I were each given one as the lady said “XO Sauce” with a broad smile.
We took the paper cups that she was offering and tipped then contents into our mouths gently. I couldn’t describe the flavor. To simply describe XO Sauce as “savory” wouldn’t capture its essence. Some food writers attach the word “umami” to savory when describing XO Sauce but even that falls short. We loved the XO Sauce sample so much that we bought a jar and brought it home.
Correcting my misunderstanding of XO Sauce
I was surprised. I’ve eaten in countless Chinese restaurants and ordered “something (beef, pork, chicken, seafood) with XO Sauce” more times than I could remember but never have I appreciated XO Sauce until that afternoon at Taipei 101. In the past, anything with XO Sauce meant a dish that was either drizzled with or swimming in a reddish brown sauce. But that sample from the XO Sauce lady had a lovely texture and an even lovelier mouth feel. Definitely not the Chinese restaurant XO Sauce from my past.
XO Sauce is not a liquid. It is not a paste. It is solids-and-oil. XO Sauce is not a sauce in the strict sense but, rather, a condiment. It is made with dried seafood (scallops, primarily), aged dried ham, chilies, garlic and oil. In case you’ve never experienced dried seafood before, the flavors are heightened. Lusty and bold. Combine that with the robust flavors of cured meat and spices, and you can just imagine how potent XO Sauce is.
Judging by its name, it’s difficult if not impossible to gauge all that, isn’t it? XO… Why call something that complex XO? Well… it has something to do with the Western penchant for appending XO to the name of old and aged (and pricey) cognac which has always been associated with wealth and superiority. It was in that context that XO Sauce acquired its name. Because… why not? It is complex, it is made with luxurious ingredients and it requires a labor of love to make. So, yes, good XO Sauce commands a high price.
My Top 3 food in case of a zombie apocalypse
If it still doesn’t sound so obvious, I fell head over heels in love with XO Sauce on our first day in Taiwan. And although I’ve occasionally used a tablespoonful or two of XO Sauce to toss with fried tofu and blanched shrimps, my favorite way to enjoy it is still with rice. A little XO Sauce over a mound of rice goes a long, long way.
If someone were to ask me… In case of an impending zombie apocalypse, what three food items I would store, XO Sauce would be one of them. Dried mung beans would be second because they last forever, and they can be grown in a jar for their edible and delicious sprouts too. The third would be uncooked white rice although I must remember to keep the rice in an oxygen-free storage for longer shelf life. With those three, our meals should fall under the “not boring at all” category. Not with XO Sauce in the house.