Taiwanese Three Cup Chicken (台式三杯鸡 San Bei Ji)
August 28, 2021  Print
You don’t need to go to a restaurant to enjoy this popular chicken dish. Originating from China’s Jiangxi province, Three Cup Chicken (三杯鸡) became much more popular after it spread to Taiwan.
This dish is called three cup chicken because the original recipe called for 1 cup of lard, 1 cup of soy sauce, and 1 cup of sweet fermented rice as the main seasonings. The Three Cup Chicken we see most often today is actually the Taiwanese version. The most notable change is that the Taiwanese version includes basil as a key flavoring ingredient.
The modern versions of Taiwanese Three Cup Chicken (三杯鸡 San Bei Ji) use sesame oil, soy sauce, and rice wine as the three main seasonings. I highly doubt anyone still uses 1 whole cup of oil, especially for homemade versions. No water is ever added to the chicken. The chicken is solely braised in a liquid sauce containing mainly soy sauce, rice wine, and sugar until the liquid sauce thickens. Basil is added at the very end to balance the chicken’s rich sweet and savory flavor with its unique minty, peppery, and anisey scent.
My 5-year-old usually does not like bones in his meat, but he never complains about this dish and its bones. He happily chews off all the meat and discards the bones and then goes for another piece. That’s when I know he really likes my Three Cup Chicken dish. Garlic is another hit in this dish. My husband loves the garlic pieces. That’s why I usually include a few extra whole garlic cloves.
This recipe is best served as a main dish and goes very well with rice.
My version of the Taiwanese Three Cup Chicken is quite generic. After you try mine, feel free to experiment with the seasonings based on your own preferences, like increasing or reducing amount of sugar or soy sauce or adding green onions and chili peppers. But no matter what, don’t skip the basil and don’t add water to this recipe.
Preparation Time: 25 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes
Servings: 4-6 people
- 1.5 lb bone-in skin-on chicken wings, drumsticks, thigh or a mix of the three 1
- 1 large ginger chunk (about 2 inch or 5 cm long)
- 5 or more garlic cloves
- 1 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves 2
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- 2 large pieces of rock sugar 3 or 3 tablespoons of sugar
- 1/4 cup rice wine 4
- 1/4 cup light soy sauce 5
- 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
- Blanch the chicken. Cut the chicken into small pieces with a large cleaver.6 Put all the pieces in a small sauce pan and fill with cold water. Cover the lid and bring the sauce pan to a boil. When scum forms on the surface (even before the water starts boiling), take out all the chicken pieces. Rinse the chicken well until there’s no more scum. Drain and set aside.
- While blanching chicken, prepare the other ingredients. Cut the ginger into thin slices. Peel the garlic cloves. Wash and pat dry the basil leaves with a paper towel. Separate the basil leaves into individual leaves. Set aside.
- Heat a well-seasoned wok or skillet under medium heat. When the wok is warm, add the 2 tablespoons of sesame oil follow by the ginger slices, whole garlic cloves, and the 2 large pieces of rock sugar, stirring often. Let the sesame oil slowly cook the ginger and garlic until they are golden brown and the rock sugar has broken down into tiny pieces and begin to resemble caramel.
- Add the chicken pieces to the wok, immediately stirring and tossing to coat all the chicken pieces with sugar. Set the heat to medium-high. Then pour in the 1/4 cup of rice wine, 1/4 cup of light soy sauce, and 1 teaspoon of dark soy sauce, mixing evenly.
- When the liquid sauce quickly starts bubbling, lower the heat to low and cover the lid. Keep the chicken simmering in the liquid sauce for 10 minutes.
- When the time is up, remove the lid. If the liquid sauce has become thick, turn off the heat and add all the basil leaves. (If there is still quite a good amount of liquid left, set the heat to medium-high and let the liquid quickly evaporate until the liquid sauce has significantly reduced and becomes thick.) Keep tossing for a minute and then transfer the chicken to a plate. Enjoy while warm!
- I’ve tried each and also mixed all three types of chicken to make this dish. You can use boneless and skinless chicken as well, but the bones and especially the skin do make the dish more flavorful.
- Thai basil works the best but other types of basil can work as well.
- You can find rock sugar in pretty much any Asian grocery store. They are also called rock candy. Both the yellow and white kind work.
- Rice wine is a clear cooking wine used in Asian cuisine. If you can’t find regular rice wine, use sake or Chinese Shaoxing wine instead.
- I used Kimlan (金蘭) soy sauce, which is a Taiwanese soy sauce for this recipe. But other light soy sauce work as well.
- Be careful not to cut yourself. You can also try asking your grocery store butcher to cut them into small pieces.
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Glenn Emerson wrote:
I have not tried this yet, but gave it four stars because it looks delicious and I am eager to try.
I have been using Zhongba light soy sauce since discovering it through The Mala Market (themalamarket.com). It is made in Chengdu using traditional methods. Prior to this, I only knew US mass market brands like La Choy and Kikkoman. When I tried making authentic Chinese recipes with these US brands, I quickly found the taste to be overly salty and objectionable.
Switching to the Zhongba made a significant difference. You mention Kimlan. I have not heard of this. The difference between the Zhongba and US brands is that the Zhongba is made using traditional methods. Is this true also of Kimlan?
Hi, thanks for stopping by.
I used Kimlan because it’s a Taiwanese brand and seems to work well for this recipe based on my own taste. I’ve tried quite a few brands and there are definitely variations in terms of saltiness, use of wheat, and richness of flavor. My recommendations are usually based on how well I think the soy sauce works for a particular recipe. Choosing soy sauce based on how it’s made can get to be a bit of a rabbit hole – and expensive for everyday cooking!
I definitely pay more attention to the soy sauce when using it as a dipping sauce or when the sauce plays a transformational role in a dish. For everyday recipes as a home chef, I probably don’t pay as much attention as you (based on your comment).
I think you would really enjoy the episode on salt in the Netflix documentary series: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. They have a segment in it about traditional soy sauce making that I think you might like.
Thanks again for stopping by!