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With country ham epicness ahead, I wanted to use the last of the Benton’s Country Ham gifted so generously by Mr. Schleifer (remember, the connoisseur of anchovies, country ham, and laksa?) before that whole business started. It is those kind of thoughts that often get me into trouble. I want to use random, free small bits, so I go out of my way for days to find supplies to “use it up”. This was no different. I was paging through Momofuku and saw that Chang uses country ham in place of Yunanese ham while making XO sauce. After reading the recipe and description of XO sauce, despite never having it, I knew that I was going to make it.

Finding supplies however proved difficult – even in Chicago. Most of the supplies I had in my pantry, but dried scallops were going to be the cause of consternation in our household for the weekend. On Saturday morning, I set out on my run early, so that I could get to Green City Market, then grocery shopping and finally to Joong Boo for XO supplies. They carried dried shrimp, pollack, file fish, octopus, anchovy and many others, but no dried scallops. I moved on.

Later that evening, we were in Chinatown for dinner, but most of the grocery locations seemed to be closed. Finally, the next day, I drove down to Chinatown by myself, fought Dim Sum traffic and parking, and made my way into dirty store with huge glass jars of dried seafood in the window. I had a sense that this would be the place. No one spoke English (fine by me, I didn’t need conversation), no labels were in English (fine by me, I knew what to look for), and no one stopped staring at the giant white kid (fine by me as well). It all fit. Once I found them, I picked up my scallops and was on my way, but not before sampling the goods from a few snack shops before getting back to Logan Square.

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Dried shrimp and scallops

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Rehydrated shrimp and scallops

Back to the XO sauce, which in my mind, was an ancient royal treat reserved for the elite, but in reality, it is younger than me (still reserved for the elite, however). XO actually refers to Extra-old cognac, a sign of luxury in the early 1980s. It is funk bomb, loaded with dried fish, salty ham, garlic, chilis and ginger. According to Chang, the way to increase the profile of your XO is with a dash of cinnamon. Since that is how I would someday like to roll, I went ahead and added the cinnamon waiting for baller status to follow.

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The most challenging aspect of making XO sauce is finding the ingredients as the rest of it is about pureeing and stewing/frying.

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One aspect of the process that I did not think about in advance was how much frying nearly a pound of ham, dried shrimp and dried scallop would impact the smell of our home. Not even the massive amounts of garlic, ginger, and chili could offset the absolute funkiness of it all. It was Bootsy Collins all over our house for a few DAYS. Funky. I expected a little, but got a lot.

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That funkiness, though, is exactly what I was looking for. After finishing the pureeing and cooking, I moved onto containment. With a Weck jar completely filled for us, I filled a smaller jar for trade. I then sealed the jars, opened the windows and burned every candle I could find.

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Left to rest for a few nights, I finally cracked open the Weck jar to top roasted brussels sprouts. With ham as a primary ingredient in XO sauce, there seemed to be a theoretical tie between the bitter little cabbages and the umami bomb that is XO sauce. With a little more XO sauce, pureed with yogurt and chickpeas, I stuffed some banana peppers taken from my father’s garden.

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The XO sauce is a great addition to strong flavors like chilis or brussels sprouts as it not only holds up to the strong flavors, but balances them like a fish sauce would, but in solid form. It carries with it sweetness, sharpness, heat, saltiness, and, as mentioned above, funk. Instead of needing complementary flavors, XO is like a flavor amplifier. As Chang puts it, you will have gone through your jar of XO long before it goes bad. At the rate we are using it here, it may be gone before the week is out. The best part is that I am not going to run out of ham anytime soon and that I know where to get dried scallops., so when I make it next, I’ll do so with the windows wide open.

XO Sauce

Makes about 1 liter

  • 100 grams dried shrimp
  • 100 grams dried scallop
  • 150 grams country ham
  • 125 grams garlic
  • 75 grams ginger
  • 26 dried tien tsin peppers
  • 250 milliliters grape seed oil
  • 3 grams salt
  • 3 grams cinnamon

Step one: Submerge dried fish in water overnight. Drain and puree. Set aside.

Step two: Puree ham. Add ham and oil in a cast iron skillet and brown ham for 10 minutes. Ham should be fragrant and crispy.

Step three: While browning the ham, grind chilis in spice grinder. When ham is browned, add chilis to ham/oil. Cook for 4 minutes.

Step four: Puree ginger and garlic. Add to bowl with pureed dried shrimp and scallop. Add to ham/oil/chili. Cook for 45 minutes on low stirring frequently to avoid sticking until the entire mixture is brown and somewhat dry. Add salt and cinnamon and cook for another minute or two.

Step five: Spoon into jars. Use to flavor pretty much everything.

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