Three cups chicken (San Bei Ji) is so attractive because of its simplicity to prepare and concentrated flavor. It is one famous Chinese dish that does not involve stir-frying– the principle cooking method used in many Chinese dishes. Traditionally it is served bubbling hot in an earthenware pot with steamed rice or rice congee.
Three cups chicken originates from the province of Jiangxi in China. Legend has it that it was created by Wen Tianxiang who was a scholar general in the last years of the Southern Song Dynasty. He created the chicken dish by using only a cup each of rice wine, lard, and soy sauce, and hence the name ‘three cups’. Eventually it was introduced to Taiwan and has become the de facto national dish of Taiwan.
Three cups chicken is the perennial Taiwan favorite of all time. Lard has long been substituted with sesame oil with basil as the must-have ingredient. I have written about three cups chicken in my article about Malaysian Chinese recipes last year. I am revisiting this recipe and stick to the authentic way of preparing it in Taiwan, rather than the Malaysian version in my previous article.
Unlike other Asian stir-fry dishes that rely on fiery heat to generate wok-hei for complex flavor, three cups chicken is handled in a more subtle way with the perfect pairing of ingredients and slow stewing to imbue the flavor into every piece of the meat. The result is an aesthetically pleasant glossy finish and mouth-watering chicken which is a feast for all senses.
The eponymous ‘cups’ of Three Cups Chicken denote the use of equal parts of soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, and a generous bunch of basil. However, many experienced chefs have their secret ratio of these ingredients. They also prepare the dish in different methods based on their experience. Some recipes suggest to pan fry the chicken first to enhance the flavor, others recommend blanching the chicken to remove the raw smell before simmering in the sauce.
Besides the ratio of the ingredients and the method of preparation, the debate also raged over how thick the three cups sauce should be, what type of sesame oil is suitable and the choice between light and dark soy sauce. Despite the differences, if you just use one cup each of soy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil, you are doomed to cook up an unappetizing dish. In my opinion ‘three cups’ is the concept rather than the rule. You definitely also need to fine-tune the flavor by adding garlic, ginger and basil.
How to prepare Three Cups Chicken (1.20 min)
My Three Cups Chicken Recipe
Below is my tested authentic and easy Three cups chicken recipe. This is a homey and irresistible dish which takes only twenty minutes to prepare. The entire dish can be prepared by using any standard western kitchen stove, and does not require the high output wok burner used for other stir-frying dishes.
- 500g skin-on chicken drumsticks or thighs
- 2 tablespoons (20ml) of sesame oil
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) of light soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) of dark soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil
- 15g of ginger cut into thin slices
- 6 cloves of whole and peeled garlic
- 2 red chilies, stemmed and cut into 2 cm pieces
- 40 g of rock sugar
- 4 tablespoons (60ml) of rice wine
- 100ml of water
- 1 big bunch of basil leaves
- Cut the chicken into 5cm pieces. Marinate with B for 30 minutes
- Heat up 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a wok to saute ginger and garlic.
- When the ginger turns slightly brown, add red chili and rice wine.
- Add the chicken, rock sugar and water. Cover and simmer.
- When the gravy is nearly dry and the surface of the chicken becomes glossy, add rice wine and basil and simmer for another minute.
- Drizzle with some sesame oil. Serve.
Two ways to cook three cups chicken
Three cups chicken can be prepared in many ways, and I can loosely group them into two methods. Both methods are used by the local and celebrity chefs in Taiwan.
The marinating method. The chicken is marinated with rice wine, sesame oil, sugar and soy sauce. The main reason is to ensure that the flavor is fully absorbed into every part of the chicken.
The pan-frying method. The chicken is pan-fried until golden brown and seasoning is added. Pan-frying makes the chicken more aromatic, and it is assumed that the meat will be imbued with flavor during the slow cooking process. Sesame oil is added during the later part of cooking to avoid it going bitter due to prolonged cooking.
Cooked in soy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil, and loaded with heaps of whole garlic cloves, slices of ginger, and fresh Thai basil, this classic Taiwanese chicken dish is a perfect reminder of just how good an over-abundance of flavor can be.
Findings of my simple test of both methods validate a stark difference
The flavor and fragrance as a result of pan-frying the chicken do not come through significantly. In fact, it is hardly noticeable if you’re not told that the chicken was pan-fried. The downside is that since I did not marinate the chicken, the inner part of the chicken meat tasted rather bland. The rich flavor of the sauce coated on the surface is not enough to provide sufficient flavor to the thick part of the meat.
The result of the marinated version turned out much better. The flavor is good and well penetrated. I will certainly use this method in my recipe.
Further explanation of how to prepare three cups chicken
- The ratio of wine,soy sauce, and sugar can differ. It also depends on the brand of soy sauce as the saltiness can be different.
- You can substitute rock sugar with regular sugar if rock sugar is not available.
- My ratio of light to dark soy sauce is 3:1. I prefer this ratio as the color is not too dark and the flavor of both types of soy sauces is clearly detectable.
- The smoking point of sesame oil is quite low. Be careful not to overheat the sesame oil, or it will acquire a bitter taste.
- There are two ways to cut the chicken. The first way is to cut the chicken into 3-inch, bone-in pieces, whilst the second way is to use deboned chicken thigh meat. (Ask the butcher to cut it for you - bone-in and skin on). I prefer the first option as the bone will contribute flavor to the gravy while braising.
- You can blanch the chicken in hot water before cooking it to remove the impurity and raw smell, although I find that it is not significant.
- Saute the ginger, chili and garlic with just enough oil. Do take note that one of the ingredients in the marinade is sesame oil. We do not want to make it too oily.
- Ginger takes longer than garlic to saute before it turns aromatic. Use the whole clove of garlic if you want to saute the garlic and ginger at the same time. Otherwise, add the sliced garlic slightly later.
- You can use three to five dry red chilies to replace the raw red chili in the ingredient list. This is the variation offered by some Chinese restaurants.
- Three cups chicken is best to serve with steamed rice.
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