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i’m not white

Recipe: chinese xo sauce

I sometimes forget that I’m Chinese. It sounds crazy, but it is true. I don’t look in the mirror often (this you can probably tell if you have ever encountered me in real life), there aren’t many pictures of me since I’m usually the one behind the camera, and I live with a white guy and a black dog in Colorado. So it startles me at times when I do take a picture of myself and I think, “Oh yeah… I’m Chinese.”

after a happy day of skiing

And then there are times when I really feel it.

There is a young woman, Janet Liang, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at the age of 22 in 2009. She underwent some nasty chemotherapy treatments and was declared in full remission in 2010. Except she relapsed at the end of 2011. She’s undergoing more chemo now, but her best chance to beat this cancer is to find a bone marrow match and the chances for finding a match are higher within her own ethnic group. She has until April of 2012 to find the perfect match, so time is short. And you know, there are a lot of people out there waiting for a bone marrow match. If we all registered, we might save that many more lives. I tweeted and Facebooked the link to spread the word, and then I went to register online.

I know that fear of wondering if cancer will snuff you out. I knew it at age 36 and it scared the shit out of me. Janet is only 25 years old. She is so young. I was a complete moron at age 25, I can’t even imagine how I would have felt or reacted. I knew the chances of me being a match were slim, but I hoped I could help. When I read the instructions on how to join the bone marrow registry, my heart sank. My history of cancer precludes me from being a donor. I read the guidelines over and over again and the tears spilled down my face. Damn cancer. But my pity party was only a few seconds. If I couldn’t register, I would at least let everyone in my circles know and perhaps get a fraction of them to register. It’s so simple, and yet it’s huge. It is life. Not just for Janet, for many others.

If you feel so inclined, please consider registering through Helping Janet which has links on how to join a bone marrow registry. She’s got just over a month and registration takes a little while, so time is of the essence. And if you could spread the word, that would be aces. Thank you so much. xo


I think it is very Chinese to be skeptical of Chinese food you aren’t familiar with. Take XO sauce, for instance. This is a spicy condiment chock full of seafood that we usually eat with dim sum, on noodles, on rice, on vegetables, on tofu – pretty much with anything. I grew up knowing it as a true sauce with bright orange oil, colored from the chile. I found a recipe while flipping through my Momofuku cookbook and was pretty jazzed. Homemade XO sauce, at last!

grapeseed oil, garlic, ginger, country ham, chile pepper, dried shrimp, dried scallop

For the uninitiated, there are some items that may be hard to find. Mainly the dried scallops and the dried shrimp. The dried scallops are expensive, but a little goes a long way. When I told my mom I needed to find dried scallops she nearly screamed, “I have some in the refrigerator in our Boulder condo! Use them!” These were whole scallops, which cost more. I said I might use them if I couldn’t find any at Pacific Ocean Market. The scallops are typically found at the front of the Asian grocery store where they sell medicinal items, teas, and ginseng. I had never shopped for them before, but as soon as Mom described where they would be, suddenly the “front counter” of every Asian market I’d ever seen flashed through my brain. Pieces are the cheapest, then they become progressively more expensive for small, medium, large, and extra large.

the array of scallops

whole and pieces

I decided to buy pieces as they were cheaper and I didn’t want to use up Mom’s scallops. I’m still unclear as to why you would buy whole ones anyway because when you rehydrate them, they fall apart. Can anyone enlighten me on that? Oh, and the dried shrimp will likely be in the refrigerated section (in the main part of the store) where they have fresh noodles and pickled vegetables. I was quite pleased to find this kind with no food coloring because all of the ones with food coloring scare me.

small or medium? who knows – i never claim to understand chinese labeling

soak the scallops and shrimp overnight in water (do this first!)

Now let’s talk about ham. Country ham is not boiled ham. They are different beasts altogether. Country ham is salty as hell and amazingly good. If you can find some or if my mom is nice enough to send you some, then you’re in business. Otherwise, you might try using xiang chang, which is sweeter and found in most Asian grocery stores. Once you have your mise en place, it goes rather quickly.

ready, freddy

garlic and ginger: chop chop

actually, just about everything is run through the food processor

I was surprised at how the ham soaked up all of the oil in the pan and worried that I had done something wrong. I went back and read the recipe description. That’s when I noticed Chang wrote this was “dry and flaky” and not really sauce-like at all. Well okay… when you are this far along, you don’t jump ship. I had faith in the Chang.

adding chile pepper to the ham

mix in the scallops, shrimp, garlic, and ginger

Once everything is in the pan, it goes on low heat for a good 45 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent burning and encourage drying. It’s done when the whole ensemble turns a deep golden color.

chang calls it dirty blonde

xo sauce

This definitely is not the XO recipe that I was looking for, but it’s lovely anyway and I now have a big jar of it in my refrigerator. I’ve since enjoyed it on fried rice, with vegetables, and topped Chang’s awesome ginger scallion noodles with some XO “sauce”. Aromatic, spicy, strong flavors. Good stuff! I can’t wait to try some on congee.

xo sauce with noodles is a total no-brainer

Chinese XO Sauce
[print recipe]
from Momofuku by David Chang

2 oz (1/2 cup) dried scallops
2 oz (3/4 cup) dried shrimp
1/2 cup garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
1 cup country ham, chopped (or use Chinese sausage)
1/2 cup grapeseed oil or other neutral oil
1 tbsp crushed dried red chile

Place the scallops and shrimp in a medium bowl and cover with at least 1/2-inch of water. Cover the bowl and let sit overnight. Put the garlic and ginger in a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Empty the contents into a bowl. Drain the scallops and shrimp. Place the scallops and shrimp in the food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Add the scallop and shrimp to the garlic and ginger. Finally, mince the ham or sausage in the food processor. Keep the ham or sausage separate from the rest of the ingredients. In a 12-inch sauté pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat for a minute or so. Add the ham and stir occasionally, for about 3-4 minutes until the meat begins to crisp. Add the chile. Cook (stirring) for another 2-3 minutes. Reduce the heat to a very low flame and add the remaining ingredients to the pan. Let the sauce cook over low heat for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing is stuck to the pan. The sauce should dry out and turn a deep golden color. Remove from heat. Store in a covered jar in the refrigerator (should last for months). Makes 2 cups.

30 nibbles at “i’m not white”

  1. Julia says:

    My first reaction to reading your post is that the XO sauce would be such a hit at the Boulder food swap. You may not want to part with any of your wonderful-sounding XO sauce but consider yourself invited to swap anything else. This month’s swap is on Sunday, February 26th at 5:30 at Savory Spice Shop.

  2. Eva @ Eva Bakes says:

    I’m also wondering about the whole vs. pieces of dried scallop thing. My mom always bought the whole ones, so I’ll have to ask her about it soon. She also loved cooking with XO sauce – thank you for another wonderful recipe!

  3. Monica says:

    I know people buy the whole scallops more for gifts. And getting whole means that you can tell that you’re getting scallops from the same region and not getting scraps from different places.

  4. Lisa says:

    It’s really kind, lovely and wonderful of you to post about the bone marrow registry. I also wanted to register, but unfortunately if you have MS you can’t be a donor. My husband was a bone marrow donor for his mom. Unfortunately she died of leukemia. I hope a lot of people register as a result of this post.
    P.S. Love your site. Wish I could go for a hike with you and your dog. I have three dogs and I think they’d have a lot of fun on a doggie play day. L.

  5. Laurel says:

    XO furikake! This is fantastic. I’ve been making my own furikake blends for years to use on salads, noodles, etc., and this will definitely be added to the rotation.

    Also, thanks for announcing the bone marrow registry; Jews have much the same problem as other smaller ethnic communities & benefit from a targeted registration pool. It’s really great that you are helping to publicize such things.

  6. Mary says:

    Very interesting recipe – take the mystery out of some unknown ingredients. Thanks Jen for sharing :-)
    I suppose some commercial ones are infusion of ingredients in oil and can be spicy hot?

  7. Jenny says:

    You are the kindest biggest hearted bad ass I know.

  8. shivani says:

    very tempting! I am a vegetarian so I think I’ll leave out the non-veg stuff n try the sauce with other stuff. Please add some sauce recipes with veg ingredients.
    I saw a recipe of sesame noodles online and got a bottle of sesame oil but I find the taste to be too strong. I was wondering if there are two varieties of sesame oil – pure and refined and i got the wrong one. or may be its just that i don’t have a taste for peanut oil.

  9. shivani says:

    Ops I meant sesame oil in the last line

  10. Ruth Ann says:

    Regarding Janet, I recently worked/spoke with 3 groups that may be able to help. I am sure that she has already contacted them but it never hurts to ask again.
    The first group is AADP (Asian American Donor Program) at I worked at a bone marrow drive with AADP when we were trying to find a bone marrow donor for Amit Gupta (@superamit). Since he is of South Asian/Indian descent, his chances of finding a donor were 1 in 20,000. But, he beat the odds and just had his BMT about 2 weeks ago.
    The second group is the Lambda Phi Epsilon (LFE) fraternity. They are an Asian American fraternity and their national philanthropy is actually sponsoring bone marrow drives specifically for Asian-American people if possible. The Stanford chapter can be reached at .
    Janet may also want to contact the Joanne Pang Foundation ( They are trying to get a diverse population of Umbilical Cord Blood which can also be used for bone marrow transplantation. The fetal stem cells in the umbilical cord can graft more easily.
    I hope that Janet can find a donor.

  11. Jessica says:

    It does look like XO sauce. Missing the oil they usually drench it in. Then again, I was under the impression that you were making hoisin sauce for a while.

    I wanted to say thanks for your recipes. I don’t cook much, but reading them is always fun. Also, its a great reference for chinese recipes, especially since my mother is kinda horrible at explaining things.

    Keep up the amazing blog! I would hate to see it go.

  12. Jeri says:

    They use whole scallops in soup and they actually do not fall to pieces when boiled in soup.. Also, the bigger the dried scallop the more expensive they are (as they are harder to come by) and when they are in whole pieces you can tell how big they are !

  13. Jill says:

    I went to Janet’s site, and liked her on FB, with a comment. I hope through the chain of social media she finds hope. You know I can’t be a donor either, but would in a heartbeat. I hope she finds her match. Truly hope.

    Cute pic of the 2 of you post ski. What a sweet smile, and love your pigtails.

    xo, j

  14. Sheree says:

    I love the photos. Sometimes I forget I’m Chinese too! LOL.

  15. Emmy says:

    I’m so glad you posted about Janet and joining the bone marrow registry. Raising awareness is the only way to expand the pool of donors and increase the chances of finding a match for the many people seeking treatment. I joined last month after seeing an article in the newspaper, and just yesterday I got an email telling me I’d been officially added to the registry. I will continue to spread the word!

  16. Andrea says:

    Thank you so much Jen!! I know Janet will appreciate this.

  17. alice says:

    Thanks for posting about Janet and your own story, I joined the network as a result.

  18. jenyu says:

    Julia – ah yes, that would be cool. Except it costs a small fortune to make and I’m pretty hoardish about 1) my country ham and 2) seafood :) But thanks!!

    Eva – My mom told me the whole ones are so you know you’re getting real scallops and not some fake thing.

    Monica – yes, makes sense.

    Lisa – thank you xo

    Laurel – thanks!

    Mary – I still want to find the recipe for the commercial type XO sauce, because I really love those too (lots more oil, yes).

    Jenny – xxoo

    shivani – dear shivani, you will have better luck googling for vegetarian sauce recipes. sesame oil is indeed a strong flavor.

    Ruth Ann – Janet has an enormous network helping her and I’m pretty sure they’ve contacted the major groups. But you can go to her site and perhaps suggest these there.

    Jessica – I know all about the agonies of trying to pry recipes from Chinese relatives ;)

    Jeri – really? the dried scallops? Because just putting them in water makes them fall apart.

    Jill – xoxo

    Sheree – :)

    Emmy – thank you!

    Andrea – absolutely xo

    alice – thank you, so much xo

  19. vanillasugarblog says:

    lolol! “I live with a white guy….”

  20. megan says:

    hi jen! i recently subscribed to your blog, and I’m glad I did! (btw, i love the name of your blog! real butter is where it’s at.) thanks for posting the XO sauce recipe. It reminds me of food in LA :( i love all your pictures, esp. the shots of the mise en place and of kaweah! she’s beautiful!

  21. CandiRisk says:

    I am sad to say I am not eligible to register either :-( I would if I could.

    I like Chang’s recipe, but I think it needs more oil (so I always add it!)

  22. julie ferrell says:

    I am grooving on this sauce recipe: Country ham, red chile and ginger=salivation. Thank you for letting people know about Janet. xoxo

  23. Lisa is Bossy says:

    I’m late to the game here (and behind in keeping up with your blog) but wanted to also shout out. Yes, finding a bone marrow match is a HUGE challenge and typically one will find a match within the same ethnic group. This is all true. When this becomes an even BIGGER challenge is when someone is more than one race…like me. I am half Chinese and half Caucasian. If ever I need a bone marrow transplant it will likely come from someone who is also half Chinese and half Caucasian. Odds are even lower of finding this match. So it’s important for people to know that really ANY ethnic background/mix/mutt should register. I registered years ago since my bone marrow could be a match for one very specific person with a very specific ethnic background… It’s scary – but spreading the word will absolutely help.

  24. helen says:

    It seems as tho I am really late to the party, but I do have a question. When you are speaking of “country ham” are you talking about the horrible stuff that southerners use in biscuits … the stuff that swings whole from the rafters of Cracker Barrels all through the south? Is Chinese country ham appreciably different? I frequent Atlanta so I should be able to find either.

    Helen (platelet donor for 25 years – stalked by the Red Cross. Uncalled marrow donor)

  25. jenyu says:

    helen – it is indeed country ham from the south.

  26. Reproducing Nobu’s XO Salsa « tastingmenu says:

    […] […]

  27. Phoebe says:

    I can tell you something about whole vs broken dried scallops. ‘Braised dried scallops with garlic’ is a very expensive (but rather common in the past) dish for banquets, required whole scallops. Anther dish is sections of fuzzy melon stuffed with dried scallop and steamed, again needed large whole scallops. Otherwise there is very few occasion whole scallops are needed. Dried scallop is valued for the ‘umami’. After saying all that, when purchasing broken pieces, you might end up with a lot of the tasteless/tough connection muscle (a tiny piece of long thin new moon shape muscle attached to the outside of the scallop) instead of the real meat.
    You want to feel like a Chinese, and have a minority partner, come visit Vancouver BC, Canada, you might think you are in HK. I know, I also married to a ‘lo-fan’

  28. Patty White says:

    sadly Janet Liang died from that bastard Cancer. I am so sorry to all who love her and know her. I want to thank you Jen, for not only the recipe which I looked up XO Recipe and found yours and the link to help Janet but she has died. I will spread the word about the registry. You did a great thing and on a lighter note I cant wait to try this recipe. Thank you. Hugs

  29. karen says:

    I found this page searching for a substitute for XO sauce today. I have a recipe that requires it, and I just know I’m not going pay for it today after spending $400 on staples!!!

    Turns out, I won’t be making a substitute for it either, seeing as that would require a trip to get these ingredients and Chinatown is a whole 15 minutes I don’t have today to get to on my bike!

    Anyway, the reason I am writing this comment is because in the search engine this was what came up:

    chinese xo sauce recipe | use real butter
    Feb 22, 2012 … Recipe: chinese xo sauce I sometimes forget that I’m Chinese. It sounds crazy, but it is true. I don’t look in the mirror often (this you can …

    I’m not really sure I can put words to why this was timely today I’m thoughtful that I’m never surprised by my ethnicity when I look in the mirror, and that that this is because white culture has been the dominant image in North America for so long, endlessly reflected back as “the picture of us”.

    I’m pretty sure when I show this post to my husband later (he’s Cantonese) he’ll smile and agree. Except now rather than it being his reflection in the mirror, his children jump on him and he remembers too.

    Here’s the coolest thing. I was searching for a pulled pork recipe this morning and before I found this post I’d selected your Carolina-style recipe was the one I picked from the 10 tabs I’d open. I love that your recipes reflect the different parts of who you are, and that I met you in this order. I love your site and can’t wait to explore more of your recipes with their accompanying lush imagery.

  30. Natasha Rodriguez Mom 2 5321 says:

    I registered as a bone marrow donor in college because I just felt it was the right thing to do, if you can save someones life-you must. I am so happy you shared this because it reminded me that I too could help make a difference and share with my readers as well.

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