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) 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.
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.
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.
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
- 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.
Here are more chicken recipes to inspire your next meal:
- Fried Prawn Paste Chicken (Har Cheong Gai 虾酱鸡)
- Kapitan Chicken (Soy Bean Paste Version)
- Gong Bao Chicken (Chicken Fried with Dried Red Chillies)
- Chinese-Style Tender Braised Chicken with Potatoes
- Chicken in Spicy Tomato Sauce (Ayam Masak Merah)