Three Cup Chicken – Cooking Taiwanese Made Simple!

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Three cup chicken (san bei ji 三杯鸡) is a uniquely Taiwanese delicacy of chicken braised in sesame oil, Chinese wine and soy sauces. Loads of fresh basil flavour punctuates the sauce, giving this dish its amazingly bold and exciting flavours!
Three Cup Chicken (San Bei Ji 三杯鸡)

Three cup chicken (san bei ji 三杯鸡) was one of my earliest posts when I started this blog years ago. I feel like that post really didn’t do this wonderful dish enough justice because I took the most awful photos! Newbie blogger that I was at the time.

I had my first taste of three cup chicken at a potluck many years ago. My Taiwanese friend brought it in a huge earthen clay pot dish.

And as it sat simmering on the dinner table, lid slightly ajar, I was mesmerised by this super fragrant, nutty and minty aroma.

There was no mistaking the anise-like scent of basil punctuating the nutty notes of roasted sesame oil.

But even that didn’t prepare me for the basil-infused flavours of this dish. It was totally divine! I fell in love with three cup chicken there and then.

Three cup chicken (san bei ji 三杯鸡)

With my friend’s instructions on how to cook three cup chicken, I was ready to try it at home. Since then, it’s become one of my favourite chicken dishes.

And it never fails to make an appearance at our table when we have guests over. Because for a dish that’s so simple to prepare, it makes for a beautiful presentation especially if served in a seasoned, earthen Chinese clay pot.

It tastes as good as any restaurant-worthy dish. I now enjoy preparing a variation of three cup chicken that’s spiced up with dried red chillies, and flavoured with a combination of dark and light soy sauces.

Oh yes, and with generous handfuls of basil. I have such a thing for basil, so I add a lot! You can’t ever have too much basil in three cup chicken, take my word.

What’s in the name ‘ Three Cup Chicken’?

Three cup chicken had its early origins in China, but is now considered integral to Taiwanese cuisine. Its name originated from the fact that it was traditionally prepared with one cup each of soy sauce, sesame oil, and Chinese wine.

Three Cup Chicken (San Bei Ji 三杯鸡)

Talk about going overboard on the seasonings, ya? But, hang on!

Actually, as I found out, it’s kind of like saying a pound cake is made with one pound each of flour, butter and sugar.

Though we don’t necessarily make pound cakes with those proportions these days. In fact, lots of delicious pound cakes vary quite a bit around these golden ratios.

So, it’s much the same with three cup chicken. We don’t really cook with one cup proportions, cos that would be one hell of a sauce-loaded chicken!

In fact, every Chinese home-cook tweaks this Taiwanese delicacy to suit their taste buds. So I think of it as cooking with equal or almost equal ratios of sesame oil, Chinese wine and soy sauce.

Three Cup Chicken (San Bei Ji 三杯鸡)

This recipe uses a whole chicken. So it’s more than generous for a family of 4, or just 2 with enormous appetites. And let me just say, the left-overs will taste even more incredible the day after! 

In fact, I deliberately cook this dish a day earlier than when I intend to have it. Just double or triple the recipe if you want to cook up a big batch for a pot luck or party.

Ingredients you will need

Three Cup Chicken Ingredients
  • A whole chicken, chopped into 10 – 12 parts. I used a whole chicken weighing between 1 to 1.4 kg. You can also prepare this with your favourite choice of chicken cuts, such as thighs, drumsticks, wings or breast. Skin-on and bone-in chicken parts are recommended because its fats and meat render flavourful oils and juices.
  • Basil. Use lots, lots, lots please!! I really don’t think there can be too much basil for our good here! Basil is a must, and if I had a choice, I think this dish should be called ‘four cup chicken’. Just because basil really oomphs up the flavour factor!
  • Aromatics. The key aromatics here are garlic, ginger, and spring onions.
  • Dried red chillies. Though optional, I love adding dried red chillies as it gives the dish a bit of a zing! Frying these in moderately hot oil infuses the oil with a peppery flavour.
  • Sesame oil. Every authentic three cup chicken recipe starts with sesame oil. Sesame oil creates a smoky, nutty flavour base for the aromatics and meat. Do not substitute this with other oils.
  • Chinese wine. I use Hua Tiao wine or Hua Tiao Chiew 花雕酒. If you can’t get your hands on a Chinese cooking wine, the next best alternative I often use is sherry.
  • Light soy sauce. Light soy sauce is the ingredient that adds saltiness to this dish, as well as a little colour.
  • Dark soy sauce. Dark soy sauce is not as salty, and has a higher content of sugar. This caramel-like soy sauce is used mainly to colour the meat. I like my meat dishes with a richer, deeper colour so the ratio I used here are 2 tablespoons of dark soy sauce to 4 tablespoons of light soy sauce.
  • Sugar. Sugar is added to taste to offset the saltiness and deepen the flavour profile. For a more nuanced sweetness, you can also use light brown sugar.

Step-by-step: How to cook three cup chicken

  • 1 & 2: Heat up sesame oil in a wok over low-medium heat. Tip in cut dried chillies, and sear for 10 to 15 seconds until fragrant. Using a slotted spoon, remove and set aside.
  • 3 & 4: Increase the heat, and in the hot oil, fry aromatics (garlic, ginger and ½ of spring onions) until fragrant. Tip in the chicken, and stir fry for a few minutes to brown the chicken.
  • 5, 6 & 7: Add Chinese wine, light and dark soy sauces, and sugar. Stir briefly to colour and coat the chicken evenly.
  • 8: Cover with a lid, reduce the heat and let chicken braise in sauces for 20 to 25 minutes. Halfway through, give the chicken a good stir. Then cover again, and continue braising until the sauce reduces and has thickened slightly.
  • 9 & 10: Turn off the heat. Tip in basil leaves, fried chillies and remaining spring onions. Give it a couple of tosses to mix well. Then dish out and serve immediately. Note: If this a cook-ahead meal, only stir in the basil leaves during the last 1 – 2 minutes of re-heating on the stove, just before serving.
Three Cup Chicken (San Bei Ji)

Here are more chicken recipes to inspire your next meal:

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Three cup chicken (san bei ji 三杯鸡)
Three Cup Chicken Recipe

Three Cup Chicken Recipe

Yield: 6 servings
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes

Three cup chicken (san bei ji 三杯鸡) is a uniquely Taiwanese delicacy of chicken braised in sesame oil, Chinese wine and soy sauces. Loads of fresh basil flavour punctuates the sauce, giving this dish its amazingly bold and exciting flavours!

Ingredients

  • 1 whole chicken (1 to 1.4 kg), chopped into 10 - 12 parts
  • 8 cloves garlic, peeled, slightly bashed
  • 1 thumb-length ginger, peeled, sliced thinly
  • 2 stalks spring onion, chopped into 1-inch (2-cm) sections
  • 8 dried red chillies, cut into ½-inch (1-cm) sections
  • 6 tbsp sesame oil
  • 4 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp dark soy sauce
  • 6 tbsp Chinese wine or sherry
  • 1½ - 2 tbsp sugar, or to taste
  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves (or more as desired)

Instructions

  1. Heat up sesame oil in a large clay pot or wok over low-medium heat. When hot, add cut dried chillies and fry till seared, about 15 seconds. Remove chillies with a slotted spoon. Set the chillies aside.
  2. Increase the heat to high. In the chilli-infused oil, fry ginger, garlic and ½ of chopped spring onions. Fry for about 30 seconds or until lightly browned and fragrant.
  3. Tip in the chicken pieces. Stir fry together for 2 minutes, or until chicken changes colour.
  4. Add Chinese wine, light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, and sugar. Stir-fry briefly to colour and coat the chicken pieces evenly.
  5. Reduce heat until the mixture is at a gentle simmer. Cover with a heatproof lid. Let the meat braise for 20 to 25 minutes. Halfway through, give the mixture a good stir and cover again.
  6. Simmer until the sauce is reduced and slightly thickened to the consistency of a glaze.
  7. Do a taste test. As the sauce has reduced, if you find it a little on the salty side, add more sugar to taste. Turn off heat.
  8. Then tip in basil leaves, with the remaining spring onions, and fried dried chillies. Stir or give it a couple of tosses in the wok to mix well. Serve in the clay pot, or dish out into a casserole dish. Serve immediately.

Notes

Note: If this a cook-ahead meal, only stir in the basil leaves during the last 1 - 2 minutes of re-heating on the stove, just before serving.

Nutrition Information:
Yield: 6 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 443Total Fat: 27gSaturated Fat: 6gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 20gCholesterol: 88mgSodium: 1137mgCarbohydrates: 16gFiber: 1gSugar: 10gProtein: 30g

All nutritional values are approximate only.

4 Comments

  1. Thank you so much, Mel, for your kind words and feedback! I really appreciate it, it feels so good to know when readers enjoy what they see and read. You just made my day!! ?? Have a lovely week ahead…and I hope you’ll feel closer to home whenever you drop in here!

  2. I’ve spent a good hour looking through all your recipes! I love your photography and background stories and I definitely will try a few recipes for myself. These recipes help with the home-sickness. A very well put-together blog 🙂

  3. Thanks so much, Lynnette! I am so glad you are enjoying my blog. I will do my very best to keep good food (and photos!) going your way!

  4. Excellent photography celia! Enjoy viewing every piece of recipe!

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