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Three-Cup Chicken Is Taiwan's Culinary Gift to the World
Found in luxury restaurants and casual eateries, three-cup chicken—or san bei ji—is a joy to cook at home.
04-12-2021
Rich Wang

Three-cup chicken (also known as san bei ji 三杯雞) is one of Taiwan’s most iconic culinary exports. The prep is easy and the dish requires only a few ingredients to cook up. By harnessing the powers of umami, caramelized sugar, and an aromatic wine sauce, the simple recipe brings forth the savory comfort of your favorite chicken entrees. It’s both familiar and uniquely Taiwanese. It’s a perfect dish to make for a fun weeknight meal or to impress your friends at a party.

Growing up in Taiwan, we often ordered three-cup chicken when dining out. The dish could be found in eateries high and low, from night market stalls to fine-dining restaurants. But after my family moved to the United States, we began making this dish at home, because its nutty and savory aroma of soy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil is an effective cure for nostalgia. 

After the Chinese Civil War in 1949, immigrants from Mainland China brought over this century-old but rather little-known dish from Jiangxi Province to their new home in Taiwan. The original recipe calls for 1 cup of soy sauce, 1 cup of rice wine lees (that is, the residual yeast remaining after fermentation), and 1 cup of lard—hence the name. But over time, Taiwanese cooks changed the recipe to mirror local tastes, and the dish quickly spread across Taiwan and its expat communities like wildfire and became one of the most celebrated recipes in Taiwanese cuisine. 

Today, most three-cup chicken recipes use toasted sesame oil in place of the traditional lard and actual rice wine instead of its lees (you can also use dry sherry or gin). Also, almost nobody is following the “three-cup” ratio literally anymore; contemporary Taiwanese palates simply do not allow for such a high amount of fat in the sauce.  

You might think the star of three-cup chicken is, well, the chicken. But ask any Taiwanese to name their favorite part, and the answer is likely the flavors imparted by the garlic, ginger, and Thai basil. In fact, these three ingredients plus the sauce are so prescriptive of the dish that they are called the “san bei” (three-cup) method.

Large chunks of garlic and ginger might seem intimidating, but once they are toasted and softened in the sauce, they become delectably sweet and savory, not unlike the chunks of onions in traditional beef bourguignon. The slightly spicy taste and licorice smell of Thai basil (an herb that's also indigenous to Taiwan) is the key finishing touch for many Taiwanese dishes, including three-cup chicken. But if Thai basil is not available where you live, regular basil—which has a sweeter taste and more clove-like aroma—would also do the trick. It’s not the same as Thai basil, but the addition of something herbal and effervescent is essential for balancing the otherwise rich and savory dish.

(Members can access our recipe for San Bei Ji—Three-Cup Chicken—here, or you can watch the video below for step-by-step instructions.)

You can easily replace the chicken with other ingredients that are mild-flavored. For example, calamari, tofu, and king oyster mushrooms are all perfect flavor vessels for the san bei method because they complement the sauce and herbs rather than overpower them. By the same token, assertive or gamy proteins such as beef or lamb would not be ideal in san bei.

If you have a clay pot lying around or can get your hands on one, this is the time to use it. While you can cook three-cup chicken in any pot, clay pots retain heat superbly and can continue to reduce the sauce long after it is removed from the stove. So throughout your meal, the sauce will caramelize at the bottom and transform into crusty bits packed with flavor. It goes without saying that white rice, which can soak up all those amazing san bei elements, is the perfect accoutrement to the dish.

There are some foods that require planning and forethought; three-cup chicken is not one of them. You can easily make it from start to finish in less than an hour. It’s why it’s one of my go-to recipes if I want to feel transported back to Taiwan. I’ve been eating three-cup chicken all my life, and its flavor and aroma evoke some of my fondest memories from childhood. What ratatouille is to Anton Ego, three-cup chicken is to me.

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