The story behind the famous XO Pipis from the Golden Age – and where to get them now

As a child, my mother would take me to the beach at low tide to collect pipi. We waded into the water and dug our toes under the sand, searching for the smooth, hard shell of the mollusks. Once found, we would dig them out and take them home in a bucket.

Unfortunately we didn’t really know how to cook them. Mama always cooked them until the shells opened, then we scooped them out and ate the soft insides with a squeeze of lemon. But they were always so salty and gritty. The fun thing for me was being together.

If only we had known the secrets of Sydney restaurateur Billy Wong. For Wong, cooking pipi has become a life’s work.

Wong’s parents, Eric and Linda Wong, emigrated from Hong Kong to Sydney in the late 1980s, where they opened Golden Century in Chinatown. The Cantonese-style restaurant quickly became a Sydney institution, largely due to its reputation for the XO pipis dish.

First stir-fried in XO sauce, the Wong family pipis are then layered on crispy fried vermicelli noodles. Although deceptively simple, the dish has a complex flavor.

“It’s very aromatic and tastes great,” says Wong of the XO sauce. “When stir-fried with the pipis, it coats everything like gravy. It then sits on a bed of noodles, soaking up the pipi’s juices and the sauce’s flavors. The reason people like Golden Century XO sauce so much is because it hasn’t changed – you immediately recognize the taste.”

Some of those people weren’t just college students and packed at high-flying business lunches. American chef David Chang (Momofuku) called it the “best dish in the world” and restaurant critic Terry Durack called it one of Sydney’s 20 iconic dishes.

According to Wong, the secret is the sauce. The Golden Century sauce was concocted by the chef (Hung Leung) at the time and hasn’t changed since day one. “XO sauce is a premium sauce,” he says. “It contains a lot of expensive ingredients, such as dried shrimp, dried scallops and ham. It originated in Hong Kong and is named after XO cognac, a premium cognac. It has a bit of spice, but the aromas come from the garlic pepper and the seafood ingredients.”

Chinese fried donuts (youtiao) are also served with the dish – “You can dip [them] in the sauce” – while the pipis come from NSW or South Australia, to be rinsed (remove the sand), blanched and cooked through with the sauce. “You can taste the ocean,” Wong says. “Sweet and juicy. It just works.”

With Golden Century closed, XO pipis live on in Wong’s new restaurant, proudly named after the dish itself. In 2019 Wong opened XOPP in Darling Square in Haymarket. Thanks to Providoor, you can now recreate this cult classic at home.

“With Providoor, we wanted to create a cook-at-home experience, but maintain restaurant quality,” says Wong. “It came about in lockdown when people couldn’t travel. Now it’s about the convenience of being able to entertain at home.”

The food is all freshly prepared at XOPP and delivery is available all over NSW. The pipis are packaged separately from the sauce, so all it takes is a quick reheat (if you can handle a saucepan or wok, you can do this). If you’ve ever eaten at Golden Century, prepare to be transported back to Chinatown.

“I still have friends who might come back from abroad and they have it,” Wong says. “They just smile because it takes them back to the first time. It’s the best homecoming.”

This article was produced by Broadsheet in association with Providoor.

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