Three cups chicken (San Bei Ji) 三杯鸡 is so attractive because of its simplicity to prepare and intense flavor. It is one famous Chinese dish that does not involve stir-frying– the principal 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 is originated 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.
Unlike other Asian stir-fry dishes that rely on fiery heat to generate wok-hei for the 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.
How to prepare three cups chicken in 5 steps
1. Cut the chicken into large pieces, bone-in, skin-on
There are two ways to cut the chicken. The first way is to cut the chicken into 3-inch, bone-in, skin-on pieces, while the second way is to use deboned chicken thigh or breast meat.
I prefer the first option as the bone will more flavor to the gravy while braising. The gelatin from the bone will also thicken the gravy naturally to make it adhere onto the surface of the chicken.
2. Saute the aromatics until fragrant
Heat 1/3 of the sesame oil in a wok to saute ginger, garlic and dried chili. Since the smoking point of sesame oil is relatively low (about 160°C/320°F), saute over low to medium heat to avoid the sesame oil turn into smoke.
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 either dried chili or substitute with fresh serrano red chili in the ingredient list.
3. Pan-fried the chicken
Once the aromatics turn fragrant, add the chicken to the pan and pan-fried until slightly brown on both sides. It will take a few minutes, Be careful not to overheat the sesame oil, or it will acquire a bitter taste.
4. Braised the chicken with the seasonings
Once the chicken turns golden brown, add the remaining ingredients except for the basil.
Now you can continue to braise the chicken by adding a small amount of water to the pan or transfer it to a clay pot. Many Chinese chefs prefer to use clay pots to braise the chicken because it will add an earthy flavor to the dish, although it is not an essential step.
Cover and simmer for 20 minutes.
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. 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 detectable.
You can substitute rock sugar with regular sugar if rock sugar is not available.
5. Add the basil
When the gravy is nearly dry, and the surface of the chicken becomes glossy, add the basil.
Cook for another one minute or until the basil starts to wilt. Dish out and serve.
Should I use a cup of soy sauce, wine, and sesame oil each?
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.
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 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 are 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.
The 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.
- 500 g chicken drumsticks or thighs, skin on,, bone in
- Cut the chicken into large pieces.
- Heat up 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a wok to saute ginger, garlic and dried chili..
- Add the chicken and pan-fried until slightly brown.
- Add the remaining ingredients except the basil. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes..
- When the gravy is nearly dry and the surface of the chicken becomes glossy, add the basil. Cook until the basil start to wilt. Dish out and serve.
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Serving Size:2 servings
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 1005 Total Fat: 59g Saturated Fat: 12g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 43g Cholesterol: 401mg Sodium: 2438mg Carbohydrates: 32g Fiber: 2g Sugar: 23g Protein: 80g