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Ever noticed that at Cantonese restaurants, any dish containing XO sauce is unconscionably expensive (that, along with shark's fin or bird's nest soup) and that when your dish finally arrives, there is barely a wisp of the good stuff present?

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This is because XO sauce is a goldmine of ingredients boiled way, way down: dried scallops, dried scallops, dried fish, dried cured ham, chili peppers, onions, and garlic, among other things. The sauce gets its name from cognac of the same marking, even though there isn't a drop of cognac anywhere. (Clever marketing, by all accounts.) Cognac or no, XO sauce is still one tasty concoction, a hodgepodge of everything umami-laden.

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But for the price, it's a better deal to buy the jar yourself. Then you can really lay it on nice and thick in your own kitchen.

One little jar, about four ounces, will set you back $10 or more. Having never purchased perfume or nice facial cream, this XO sauce was the closest I've ever come to buying something expensive in a jar. A lady had to come and unlock a glass counter to retrieve it.

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So if you're going to spend the money on a product for which someone else spent a great deal of labor, the least you can do is to sit back and enjoy the experience. When I use XO sauce, I try to keep things simple. I use it to dress up stir-fried rice or a plate of noodles - in other words, some bland starch that takes well to embellishment. That way, I can just focus on appreciating the complex flavors for which I have paid dearly.

Do you ever use XO Sauce?

About the author: Born in Shanghai and raised in New Mexico, Chichi Wang currently resides in Manhattan, where she divides her time between writing, cooking, and tracking down the best noodles in the city. Visit her blog, Mostly Tripe.

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