I had wanted to develop this recipe for vegan XO relish before Chinese New Year, but failed. Nevertheless, better late than never! I finally got around to testing a recipe from Red Hot Kitchen (Diana Kuan) that I was in my bookmarks. The original recipe did not have nori, but I adapted and included nori for an even greater umami punch from the synergy of guanylate-rich dried shiitake mushrooms and free glutamates of nori and kombu.
What is XO Sauce?
Named after XO Cognac to symbolise luxury and status, XO (Extra Old) sauce is a deluxe spicy and chunky relish devloped Hong Kong in the 1980s. It is based on dried seafood (dried shrimps and scallops), ham (Jinhua ham), chilli, onion and garlic. These first three ingredients are especially appreciated for their intensity and complex flavour. However, it is a misnomer in that it contains neither alcohol nor is it a smooth sauce; it has a chunky texture, hence I prefer to call it a relish.
How does XO Sauce taste?
To describe the taste of the seafood-ham relish, one first tastes the chilli, then the amalgam of briny seafood, before the cured ham takes over. It is extremely moreish, spicy, salty and sweet, and of course, umami.
Ingredients for vegan XO Relish
In the vegan version, we select specific plantbased ingredients that are known to be high in basal glutamate, along with those that provide synergistic nucleotides (see illustration). In their book Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste, Mouritsen and Styrbaek explain that glutamate occurs naturally in some fresh foods, e.g. asparagus, potatoes, walnuts, and is increased over time as more as proteins break down through ageing or fermentation. However this basal umami can be intensified and sustained by eight times or more by complementing with the nucleotides inosinate (IMP), guanylate (GMP) or adenylate (AMP). Mushrooms, particularly dried shiitake mushrooms, are hotbeds of GMP. For the vegan XO relish, we are using dried shiitake mushrooms, nori, kombu, tamari, and garlic for basil umami; and dried shiitake mushrooms double up to provide synergistic GMP. The smoky notes of toasted cumin, smoked paprika, while not contributing direct umami, accentuate its effect through deepening the flavour of the sauce.
This recipe makes for a moderate-high spice level. Adjust the amount of chillies to suit your spice tolerance.
How to use Vegan XO Relish
Just like regular XO sauce or any relish, you can use it to spice up any dish from vegetables to savoury porridge. Typical dishes include green beans with XO sauce and radish cake (lo bak go) with XO sauce. I attempted a radish cake, hoping I could include a recipe for this post, but unfortunately it did not work out. Till then, enjoy this vegan XO relish!
Vegan XO Relish
A vegan adaptation of the Hong Kong XO sauce. Dried shiitake mushrooms, nori, dashi, caramelised shallots, toasted cumin, and smoked paprika are the keys to getting the moreish, umami taste of the seafood-ham sauce.
- 28 g (1 oz) dried shiitake mushrooms
- 8 g (2 large pc) kombu
- 500 ml (2 cups) filtered water
- 10 g (14 no) dried chillies, seeded and roughly chopped
- 24 g (1 medium) shallot, minced
- 5 g (1 clove) garlic, minced
- 1 tbsp cold-pressed sesame oil
- 2 tsp tamari
- 1 tsp molasses
- 3/4 tsp toasted cumin powder
- 3/8 tsp smoked paprika
- 4 g (2 sheets) nori, roughly torned
- 1 tsp toasted sesame oil (optional)
Prepare shiitake kombu dashi the night before. In a large bowl, combine the dried shiitake mushrooms, kombu, and water. Leave to soak overnight at room temperature.
Process the dried chillies and nori. In a food processor or mini-prep, place the seeded dried chillies and pulse until they resemble coarse flakes. Transfer the chillies into a small bowl. Repeat the same with the nori; transfer the nori flakes into a separate bowl.
Process the rehydrated shiitake. The next day, drain the mushrooms and kombu. Set aside the kombu for another use. Reserve the dashi. Squeeze out the excess water from the mushrooms, discard the stems, and thinly slice the caps. In a food processor or mini-prep, place the sliced mushrooms and pulse until minced; do not overblend as you want it to retain some texture.
Saute the shallot and garlic. In a large wok or skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the shallot and garlic, and saute until both are just golden and crispy, 3 to 4 minutes.
Saute the mushrooms and chillies. Increase the heat to medium-high and saute the mushrooms for 2 minutes. Add the chilies and saute for another 2 minutes.
Add the seasonings. Add the tamari, molasses, cumin, smoked paprika and nori. Stir well.
Simmer the mixture in dashi. Add about 3/4-1 cup of reserved dashi and simmer on medium-low heat until the liquid is almost gone, 4-5 minutes. If you like extra oomph to your XO relish, add the toasted sesame oil.
Store XO relish. Remove the skillet from heat. Let cool to room temperature, then transfer the XO relish into a glass jar. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.