A uniquely Taiwanese dish of chicken pieces stir-fried with ginger, garlic, spring onions and dried chillies, and braised in soy sauce, Chinese wine and sesame oil until wonderfully caramelised.
Hello! I’m breathing new life into an old post. Three cup chicken (san bei ji) was one of my earliest posts when I started this blog two years ago. That post really didn’t do enough justice to this wonderful dish. My food photography skills were rudimentary at best, and most photos were taken with my smartphone’s limited camera lens and adjustments. I thought, very simplistically at the time, that the recipes would speak for themselves once my readers discovered that each was really as good as I described it. Hah!
Looking back, I must have seemed foolishly naive. Now that I’ve become more experienced at this blogging thing-y, I’m re-visiting some of my early posts and refreshing them with recipe improvements and seriously better photography. I’m still learning to work my hand with a camera, but at least now, hubby’s given me a spiffy Canon EOS550D to play with! Yay … I’m a happy camper!
I had my first taste of three cup chicken (san bei ji) at a potluck with friends a few years ago. My Taiwanese friend brought it in a huge earthen claypot dish, and as it sat on the dinner table with its lid slightly ajar, I was immediately captivated by a wonderfully fragrant, nutty, minty and anise-like aroma. There was no mistaking the scent of basil punctuating the nutty aroma of sesame oil. But even that didn’t prepare me for the smoky sesame and herb-infused flavours of this dish – it was absolutely divine! I fell in love with it, there and then.
With my friend’s helpful verbal instructions on how to cook it, I was ready to re-create it at home. Since then, it’s become one of my favourite ways to prepare chicken. 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 claypot) and 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. More like A LOT.
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 prepared with 1 cup each of soy sauce, sesame oil, and Chinese wine. Bear in mind that you need not use these 1 cup proportions as traditionally prescribed, but read this as cooking with equal parts of these ingredients, say for example, 1/4 cup or 1/3 cup, of each. That is, unless you’re cooking a whole lot of poultry to feed a party! The recipe proportions below should be ample for a family of 3 to 4, or for a couple (the left-overs will taste even more incredible the day after!). Just double or triple the recipe if you need to serve a lot of people.
Three Cup Chicken Recipe
- 1 whole chicken (1 to 1.5 kg) chopped into smaller pieces
- 8 cloves garlic peeled, slightly bashed
- 1 thumb-length ginger peeled, sliced thinly
- 2 stalks spring onion chopped into 1-inch (2-cm) lengths
- 8 dried red chillies with as many seeds as possible removed
- 6 tbsp sesame oil
- 4 tbsp light soy sauce
- 2 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 6 tbsp Chinese wine or sherry
- 3 1/2 tbsp sugar
- Handful fresh basil leaves (or more, as desired)
- Heat up sesame oil in a large clay pot or wok over medium heat. When hot, add cut dried chillies and fry till seared. Remove chillies from oil with a slotted spoon or sieve. Set the chillies aside.
- Add ginger slices, garlic cloves and half of chopped spring onions into the oil. Stir-fry till garlic and ginger start to sear or brown, and become fragrant, about 1 minute. Increase heat to high, and add chicken pieces. Stir fry together for a minute or so, till chicken just starts to cook on the outside.
- Add all dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, Chinese wine, and sugar, and stir-fry together until chicken pieces are coated all over. Lower heat and let braise till sauce is significantly reduced, and almost runs dry, about 25 to 30 minutes. At this point, the chicken pieces should be cooked through and have a slightly thicker, sticky coat of sauce. Add in remaining chopped spring onions and fried chillies. Toss or stir to mix well.
- Do a taste test. If a tad salty, add more sugar. To balance out sweetness, add a dash of salt. Turn off heat.
- Put in half of the fresh basil leaves, and stir briefly to mix well. When ready to serve, stir in the remaining basil leaves, reserving a few for garnishing.