It is considered a classic Taiwanese dish but, like most Taiwanese food, three-cup chicken, or sanbeiji, originated in China. Where exactly is a matter of debate. There are many stories that range from peasants making use of puny chickens to a prison guard cooking with limited ingredients the last meal of Wen Tianxiang, a hero of the Song dynasty.
Three-cup chicken derives its name from the three liquid ingredients in which it is cooked — a cup each of sesame seed oil, Shaoxing rice wine and soy sauce. A whole cup of oil? Yes, I know, that sounds excessive. That’s why modern recipes of three cup chicken don’t follow the old ratio. The Shaoxing rice wine is sometimes replaced with sweet rice wine like mirin or sake which gives the dish a flavor reminiscent of Japanese teriyaki.
Unlike teriyaki, three cup chicken is not grilled. Rather, the chicken is cooked twice. First, it is lightly fried in the sesame seed oil in which the ginger, garlic and shallots had been lightly browned. Then, the aromatics are added back to the pan, the liquid ingredients are poured in and the chicken is braised. That is how the chicken meat acquires its lightly chewy texture. The garnish of Thai basil leaves toward the end of cooking gives the chicken dish a lovely floral flavor and aroma. I’ll repeat that — Thai basil — and not the sweet basil used for Italian cooking. Thai basil can be cooked without losing its flavor.
What is the ideal cut of chicken for this dish? Fillets are convenient but they won’t give you the deep and rich flavor of bone-in chicken. In the following recipe, I used a whole chicken originally weighing 1.5 kilos. The breast was cut off (Speedy wants to make chicken and potato salad) and the rest went into the three cup chicken dish for tonight’s dinner.
Three-cup Chicken (Sanbeiji)
- 1 whole chicken (about 1.5 kilos, minus the breast)
- 1/4 cup sesame seed oil
- a one-inch knob ginger peeled and thinly sliced
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and lightly pounded
- 3 bird's eye chilies or 1 teaspoon dried chili flakes
- 2 shallots diced
- 1/3 cup light soy sauce (I used Kikkoman)
- 1/3 cup sweet rice wine
- a large handful of Thai basil leaves
Cut the chicken into serving size pieces.
Heat the sesame seed oil in a large frying pan.
Add the ginger, garlic, chilies and shallots. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until lightly browned. Scoop out and set aside.
Turn up the heat to medium-high.
Lay the chicken pieces, skin side down and in a single layer, on the hot oil. Cook until the chicken skin is nicely browned and has a crusty texture. Flip them over and brown the other side as well.
Add the ginger, garlic, chilies and shallots back to the pan.
Pour in the soy sauce and rice wine. Turn the heat to low, cover the pan and braise the chicken for about 20 minutes. Taste the sauce occasionally; you may need to add more soy sauce.
Turn up the heat. stir in half of the Thai basil. Continue cooking the chicken, uncovered, until the sauce is thickened and reduced. At this point, there will appear to be more oil than sauce.
Add the rest of the basil leaves. Cook for another minute.
Serve hot with rice.