Of all the bajillion little bottles and jars of stuff littering my fridge and kitchen cupboards, the jar of XO sauce is probably my favourite. You know – the one you’d take to a desert island to make all those coconuts more interesting.
XO originates in Hong Kong, and gets its name from the Hong Kong taste for cognac. In cognac terms, XO means “extra old”; in Hong Kong terms, it means “really very delicious and pricey, like cognac”. The sauce itself doesn’t taste like or contain cognac; it’s made from dried seafood and preserved meat (usually scallops, shrimp and wind-dried ham), garlic, chillies, shallots and oil. Until fairly recently, you’d have to make your own or go to a restaurant to try it, but good XO sauces are now available bottled; I like the Lin Lin brand, which you should be able to find at a good oriental grocery. If you’re interested in making your own, the superb recipe from David Chang at Momofuku in New York is online at this tribute blog. Despite all that dried seafood, the resulting sauce isn’t particularly fishy; it is, however, a wonderfully savoury, spicy, rich and flavourful thing to cook with, and it’s a good way to pack flavour into a dish quickly. This should take you all of ten minutes to make – a great dish for an exhausted end-of-the-week supper.
To serve four, you’ll need:
500g boneless chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces (I like thigh best here – brown meat carries much more flavour)
5 tablespoons plain flour
½ teaspoon Madras curry powder (I like Bolsts)
6 spring onions
100g sugar-snap peas
100g baby corn
3 cloves garlic
50ml Chinese cooking wine or sherry
3 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 heaped tablespoons XO sauce
Salt and plenty of black pepper
Mix the flour with the curry powder, a good pinch of salt and several grinds of the peppermill, and toss the chicken in it in a large bowl. Set aside while you chop the other ingredients. Cut the white parts of the spring onions into coins, and put in a bowl with the chopped garlic. Cut the rest of the spring onions and the baby corn into pieces on the diagonal.
Heat a couple of tablespoons of ground nut oil (or another flavourless oil) in a wok over a high heat, and fry the spring onion bottoms with the garlic for a few seconds until they start to give off their scent. Add the chicken to the pan and stir-fry for about 2 minutes, until there is no pink visible. Add the green parts of the spring onions, the baby corn and the peas to the wok, stir-fry for about 30 seconds and throw in the Chinese wine and soy sauce. Stir-fry for another 30 seconds and stir in the XO sauce. Put a lid on the wok and cook for another minute or so, until the chicken is cooked through.
Serve immediately with steamed rice.