Where to find the hottest XO sauce in Hong Kong
A local foodie goes on the XO sauce trail to reveal where the spiciest, blow-off-the-roof-of-your-mouth - and tastiest - sauce can be found in the city that invented it.
- November 2018
Hong Kong doesn’t do subtle. Its shop fronts are neon-signed, its skyscrapers are vertigo-inducing and its pace of life is adrenaline-inducing fast. When it comes to food too, Hong Kong demands flavour that packs a punch. Which is why a condiment like XO sauce – a moreish, potent local invention made of cured seafood, chilli and air-dried ham – could only become a cult product in a city like this. Once I’d discovered it, I couldn’t get enough. So, I set off on a hunt to find the hottest, tastiest XO sauce in town…
Mak Ming Noodles
My first encounter with the fiery sauce was at this café in my ‘hood – Sai Ying Pun, a trendy district east of Sheung Wan. Here for supper, I spotted on the table a jug of soy sauce and a jar of something pink and pungent. I heaped a few spoons onto my plate of noodles and was immediately taken by the umami flavour, the potent chilli and taste of shrimp. The guy I was eating with was an old-time Hong Konger though, and he snorted, “This was nothing – real XO sauce should leave you sobbing for hours.”
Determined to test my newfound favourite food at its point of origin – I learned that XO sauce was reportedly invented in the 1980s at the ultra-glamorous Peninsula Hotel – I booked a table at the hotel’s Cantonese restaurant, Spring Moon. This time, the XO, made with dollops of dried scallop, came with braised oxtail. Good, but not spicy enough or worth the x10 price mark-up.
After a wild night out in Lan Kwai Fong, I had an epiphany that a dai pai dong (a hole-in-the-wall restaurant) might have XO sauce with the spice level I was looking for. So I made my way to Ball Kee in Central for some noodles. I had to make a special request for XO sauce but once it arrived, its heavy scallop paste was instantly satisfying and fiery. Definitely my hottest XO so far, but I knew there must be something spicier out there.
So I headed to the historic Mandarin Oriental hotel to savour the most expensive XO sauce in town. Made with lots of garlic and chilli, it’s not for the faint-hearted. I bought a jar from the sumptuous Mandarin Cake Shop (having already blanched at the equally fiery prices at their elegant Cantonese restaurant) and tossed it into some rice and veggies for dinner. A dinner so hot I had to have a cold shower afterwards.
Wing Lei Palace
Chef Tam Kwok Fung from the Michelin-starred Wing Lei Palace in Macau makes his own XO sauce. Was this the holy grail XO I’d been searching for? I couldn’t wait to find out. Under the glitzy chandeliers, Fung refused to divulge his recipe but I tasted squid, baby anchovies and lots of chilli. “The most difficult part of making XO sauce is controlling the temperature and timing. If it’s not cooked thoroughly, there won’t be enough flavour. If overcooked, the sauce will be bitter,” he says. This one tasted just right.
The Peak Lookout
Altitude does make food less flavoursome. Perhaps that’s why The Peak Café opens in new window is famous for having the hottest XO sauce in the city. Sitting there, with Hong Kong Island and neighbouring Kowloon laid out like a map below my feet, I tucked into my shrimp and squid, both made XO style. Spicy? Let’s just say I glugged my beer at triple speed.
Ekkebus illustrates the influence of his adopted home in his signature dish – Hokkaido scallops with XO sauce sabayon (whipping the sauce oil into a foam). The result, while delicious, rated quite low on the spice scale. By now I had realised that when it comes to Hong Kong haute cuisine, how hot your XO sauce will be is a total gamble.
It seemed serendipitous then that for my final foray, I decided to go back to where my journey started – Sai Ying Pun. Mrs So’s XO sauce is widely agreed upon among locals to be the most flavoursome in the city and at her Sai Ying Pun flagship store, you can taste various incarnations with some noodles. My verdict? Try the porcini and mushroom – packs a flavour punch and hot enough to make you sob. On the spice scale, it scores top marks.
Three of the best XO sauce brands you can buy in Hong Kong
1. Pat Chun is ideal for XO lovers who like it easy on the chilli and heavy on the fish sauce.
2. Yung Kee is made with a lot of shrimp paste; this only calls for a dab to add oomph to a dish.
3. Lee Kum Kee is the spiciest of the lot and chewable with some seriously chunky bits.