Last Updated on September 17, 2023
In the kitchens of seafood restaurants near 1980s Hong Kong Harbor might just be where XO sauce was invented, or it also might have first been made at the luxe Spring Moon restaurant, also in the Chinese city. Either way, the sauce has become a staple flavor booster for many dishes in China and here in the United States.
At Mister Jiu’s, a Chinese-American restaurant in San Francisco that focuses highly on seasonality and local produce, chef Brandon Jew says “XO is short for ‘extra old’ in the world of fine cognac and short for ‘baller’ in the world of Chinese people” in his cookbook, Mister Jiu’s In Chinatown. He says that for a good reason.
XO sauce has a high concentration of pedigree ingredients that can vary based on the chef making it. But essentially it’s an oil infused with dried seafood like scallops and shrimp, salted meat like smoked ham, oyster sauce, soy sauce, brown sugar and aromatics like garlic, chili flakes and other spices. It’s deeply savory with a ton of umami and a touch of heat and invigorates anything, including steamed broccoli, fried rice and pan-seared scallops like in this recipe brought to us by chef Katie Kwan.
For Kwan, who grew up in northern California, dining out with her family shaped her tastes and is the inspiration for this recipe. She’d enjoy a version of this recipe “most often when we go out to dim sum. First we do rounds of dim sum and then always finish with a rice or noodle dish. The most valuable part of the dishes were obviously the scallop and it’s something that we always made sure to share and split so that everyone has a bit of the silky mollusk in combination with the crispy noodles.
Notes on Scallops in XO Sauce from chef Katie Kwan
Kwan is inspired by those familial meals and Cantonese cuisine where she calls for ButcherBox’s Sea Scallops to be seared then served with stir-fried vegetables and, as she puts it, a “velvety combo of delicata and green beans.” That “velvety” sauce is made up of XO sauce, brown sugar and a slurry of cornstarch that coats everything it touches. It’s then spooned over a bed of crispy fried egg noodles. It’s a sensory bonanza and a very technique-driven dish that is a joy to share with the ButcherBox community.
“It’s a great mix of textures and it is quite a treat to have wonton noodles that are pan fried. It takes a bit of effort but is always worth it in the end,” Kwan says. Truer words could not be spoken. The idea of taking an already delicious food, a noodle, and pan-frying it until you have a mix of textures really makes this a special dish.
For the vegetables, Kwan notes you can substitute any other crisp green vegetable for the green beans, such as Chinese broccoli or asparagus. Even baby corn, bamboo shoots, carrots and mushrooms work very well.
A few notes: If you’d like to make this in steps, try boiling and crisping the noodles up to a few hours before cooking the scallops and vegetables. Drying your scallops very well will help them sear and brown better. XO sauce can often be found in your local Asian foods market. Costco even often sells XO sauce as well. If you’re intrigued enough to make your own, XO sauce recipes are a little involved, but you can find several online. Once you’ve secured some, you’ll discover it’s a condiment that goes well with so many foods. Try a little bit in vegetable stir-frys, on fried eggs or poached chicken and even simply tossed into rice.
- 1/2 lb wonton noodles, fresh or dried
- 1 lb ButcherBox Sea Scallops, defrosted and rinsed
- Salt and pepper
- 8 tbsp canola or other high heat neutral oil
- 1 small delicata squash, halved lengthwise, seeded and cut into ½-inch pieces
- 1/2 lb green beans, trimmed
- 1/2 cup Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 4 tbsp XO sauce, such as Lee Kum Kee brand
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2 tbsp granulated sugar
- 2 tsp teaspoons cornstarch whisked into 2 tablespoons water
- Sliced scallions, for serving
- Bring a medium-sized pot of water to boil to cook the noodles. When boiling, season with salt, then drop the noodles in and cook, stirring once or twice, until cooked through, about 2 to 3 minutes. Strain the noodles, rinse under cold water to stop cooking, shake off excess water then toss with 1 tablespoon canola oil.
- Heat 3 tablespoons canola oil in a large skillet (12 inch diameter) over high heat. Once hot, transfer the noodles to the base of the skillet in an even layer (they should immediately sizzle). Toss the noodles a few times with tongs to fully coat them with the oil. Spread them again in an even layer and let crisp up on the bottom, about 5 minutes. Turn heat down to medium, toss the mix of still soft and crispy noodles and spread them in an even layer again. Keep doing this until you have about an equal amount of golden to golden brown crisp and still soft noodles, about 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer noodles to a serving platter.
- Season the scallops with salt and pepper. Turn the heat back up to high, add 2 more tablespoons of oil to the skillet and once very hot, sear the scallops in batches (don’t overcrowd) until golden brown on the bottom side, about 4 minutes. Turn them over and sear the opposite side until golden, about 3 minutes longer. Transfer them to the noodle platter. Turn the heat down to medium-high.
- Add 2 more tablespoons of oil to the skillet followed by the squash and season with salt. Toss and turn until slightly softened with golden edges, but not cooked through, about 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a different plate and set aside. Heat 1 more tablespoon of oil in the skillet and once hot, add the green beans, season with salt and cook, tossing and turning until softened, but not browned, about 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to the squash plate.
- Turn off the heat and let cool for a few minutes then pour the wine or sherry into the skillet. Turn heat back to medium, reduce wine by about ½f then add the chicken broth, XO sauce, garlic, sugar and cornstarch slurry. Whisk to combine. Add the vegetables, bring to a simmer and cook, stirring the vegetables with a spoon, until cooked through, about 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer and toss the scallops with the vegetables and XO sauce and once warm, turn off heat. Serve immediately by spooning the scallops, vegetables and sauce over the noodles.