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.