As a child my mum would take me down to the beach at low tide to collect pipis. We’d wade into the water and dig under the sand with our toes, feeling for the smooth, hard shell of the molluscs. Once found, we’d dig them out and take home in a bucket.
Unfortunately, we didn’t really know how to cook them. Mum used to boil them until the shells opened, then we’d scoop them out and eat the soft insides with a squeeze of lemon. But they were always so salty and sandy. For me, the fun part was the gathering.
If only we’d known the secrets of Sydney restaurateur Billy Wong. For Wong, cooking pipis 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 on the reputation of the XO pipis dish.
First stir-fried in XO sauce, the Wong family’s pipis are then layered on crispy, pan-fried vermicelli noodles. Though deceptively simple, the dish packs a complexity of flavour.
“It’s very aromatic and tastes amazing,” says Wong of the XO sauce. “When it’s stir-fried with the pipis it coats everything like gravy. It then sits on a bed of noodles, which soaks up the juices from the pipis and flavours of the sauce. The reason people relate to the Golden Century XO sauce so much is because it hasn’t changed – you recognise the taste immediately.”
Some of those people weren’t just students and suits at high-flying corporate lunches. American chef David Chang (Momofuku) called it the “best dish in the world” and restaurant critic Terry Durack listed it as one of Sydney’s 20 iconic dishes.
According to Wong, the secret is the sauce. The Golden Century sauce was concocted by its chef at the time (Hung Leung) and hasn’t changed since day one. “XO sauce is a premium sauce,” he says. “A lot of expensive ingredients go into it, like dried shrimp, dried scallops and ham. It originated in Hong Kong and was named after XO cognac, which was a premium cognac. There’s a bit of spice to it, but the aromatics come from the garlic chilli and the seafood ingredients.”
Chinese fried doughnuts (youtiao) are also served with the dish – “You can dip [them] into the sauce” – while the pipis are sourced from NSW or South Australia, to be purged (removing the sand), blanched and cooked through with the sauce. “You taste the ocean,” says Wong. “Sweet and juicy. It just works.”
With Golden Century now 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. Now, thanks to Providoor, you can also re-create this cult classic at home.
“With Providoor we wanted to create a cook-at-home experience, but retain the restaurant quality,” says Wong. “It came about in lockdown when people weren’t able to travel. Now it’s about the convenience of being able to entertain at home.”
The food is all prepared fresh at XOPP and delivery is available throughout NSW. The pipis are packed separately to the sauce, so all that’s required is a quick reheat (if you can operate a saucepan or a wok you can do this). If you ever ate at Golden Century, prepare to be transported back to Chinatown.
“I still have friends who might come back from overseas and they have it,” says Wong. “They just smile because it takes them back to the first time. It’s the best homecoming.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Providoor.