Philly’s sprawling food-shopping scene contains a world of ingredients, and sometimes they necessitate a special trip. You might look for tamarind pods along Washington Avenue. Palm oil might take you to Woodland Avenue. Fresh tortillas by the kilo? The Italian Market. Knackwurst? Head up to Fox Chase.
If you’re on the hunt for a jar of XO sauce — the savory-salty-spicy condiment that originated in Hong Kong in the 1980s — you might visit Chinatown, Washington Avenue, or maybe the H Marts in Elkins Park and Upper Darby.
But you can find a version that’s original to Philly if you drive down Passyunk Avenue past the Philadelphia Gas Works plant, over the Schuylkill, and beyond Ball Busters Billiards and the Purple Orchid. You’ll arrive at a row of auto-body shops. Stop at Global Auto Tags & Services, 6204 W. Passyunk Ave. Go inside and ask for Jacob.
Delaware County native Jacob Trinh works at Global Auto, his family’s business, during the week. But this Johnson & Wales-trained chef and former Vernick Fish line cook has started to channel entrepreneurial ambitions into his own company, Trinh Eats. At the moment, it’s anchored by Trinh’s XO sauce.
Traditionally, XO sauce melds dried shrimp and dried scallops with cured ham, chilies, spices, and aromatics like ginger, garlic, and shallots. The dried ingredients are rehydrated and processed to fine shreds; the aromatics and spices are toasted and ground down; everything is simmered in oil, one ingredient at a time and then altogether, enriching the oil with flavor. Finally, the mixture is spiked with soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, maybe some sugar.
The result is a coarse-yet-jammy blend that can provide an umami boost as an ingredient in sauces and stir-fries, or as a condiment on rice, noodles, or vegetables.
“It could be a main ingredient or maybe just a spoonful,” Trinh said.
His XO sauce recipe, developed over a couple of years, uses fresh crabmeat and whitefish to tone down the pungency just a bit. He also adds tamari (a gluten-free alternative to soy sauce) and sake to the simmering sauce, which cooks for three to four hours in a 22-quart stockpot.
Up until a few months ago, Trinh had been making XO sauce for his own enjoyment when he realized he made an excessively large batch. He went online and asked if neighbors would be interested in buying it, and to his surprise, many were — even if they had never tasted or heard of XO before.
He’s been cooking bigger batches since then, scaling up to about 70 jars’ worth each week. In the coming months, he hopes to secure a spot at a spring farmers market and add more products to the Trinh Eats banner. Currently, he’s tinkering with fermented hot sauces, trying out various flavor combinations (mango-long hots, Asian pear-gochujang, carrot-caraway-ghost pepper) before settling on a signature offering.
“What’s really surprising,” Trinh said, “is I was actually never a hot, spicy kind of guy out of my whole family. I’m actually the weakest when it comes to tolerance for spice levels. ... It’s funny how that turns itself around.”