Taiwanese Three-Cup Chicken (San Bei Ji) is a tender chicken dish that doesn’t take long to cook and tastes great! This classic Taiwanese dish is popular in China too, and for good reason. Give it a shot and see what all the fuss is about!
When I first moved to Toronto – back in 2013 – one of the first people I met was a Taiwanese fellow. We were both attending a job-finder’s meeting, and decided to grab lunch together. We ended up talking for the better part of the day…and then quickly lost touch.
He told me about life in Taiwan: assumptions, realities, and mindsets. And he told me about what he missed most – can you guess what it was? (Answer: It was Taiwanese three-cup chicken.)
Why is it called Three-Cup Chicken
Three-Cup chicken (san bei ji) is named after its three key ingredients:
- Sesame oil
- Rice wine
- Soy sauce
Though the name suggests that you would use one cup of each ingredient, most versions of this recipe opt for a more balanced flavour (as opposed to using equal amounts of each ingredient) – and one cup of each ingredient would need A LOT of chicken.
There are various other Taiwanese recipes that use the “three-cup” flavour – I’ve tried three-cup tofu, and three-cup squid at restaurants and both have been great!
Here’s a quick rundown of the key ingredients for this recipe:
- Chicken (duh!) – traditionally, the recipe uses bone-in pieces chopped up into 3-inch pieces. I’ve opted for chopped boneless chicken thighs just because it’s easier to buy and work with.
- Sesame oil – I noticed a few recipes online suggest using toasted sesame oil…please don’t feel like you need to do that. Toasted sesame oil is meant to be used as a garnish/finisher (think: high-quality olive oil vs cooking grade olive oil; balsamic vinegar; etc.). That said, there shouldn’t be anything wrong using it for this recipe as it’s only a small amount (but for recipes that use more, be aware that it has a lower smoke point, and cooking it further can result in a bitter taste).
- Ginger – fresh is best.
- Garlic – I use 12 cloves of garlic – if your hand happens to slip, and you use 20, I wouldn’t hold it against you.
- Basil leaves – good quality basil leaves bring a lot to this dish. They add to the wonderful aroma and taste! (Thai basil, bestie…not Italian basil. Though that will do in a pinch.)
- Rice wine – Chinese Shaoxing wine is a standard option, but I’ve listed some substitutions and alternatives below.
- Soy sauce – mmm….good ol’ fashioned soy sauce.
- Brown sugar – we’re adding a teensy bit of brown sugar to help balance the saltiness of the sauce.
Rice wine substitutions
Rice wine (mijuu) is used frequently in Taiwanese and Chinese cuisine. It’s usually available in Asian supermarkets. Can you have three cup chicken without rice wine? Yes, sort of. There are substitutions that do a passable job at mimicking the flavour, and consistency, but of course, none are perfect. But there’s not much that’s perfect in this world. Well…except you, bestie.
- Mirin – A Japanese rice wine. Just be warned this is stronger than Chinese rice wine, so you will need to reduce the amount accordingly.
- Sake – Another Japanese rice wine – this actually has quite a different flavour to Chinese rice wine, but it makes for a yummy variation.
- White Wine – a dry white makes an acceptable alternative.
Equal parts white grape juice and lemon juice mix together to make a similar effect!
If you’re looking for a more indulgent version of three-cup chicken that has crispier chicken, you can quickly deep fry the outside of chicken (don’t let it cook through!) before draining it using paper towels, and then resuming the recipe as written.
I personally don’t bother with this – partially, because I’m too lazy. And partially, because I don’t think it really adds that much to the recipe. What can I say? I’m a simple man.
Rice is perfect. Noodles are great too!
Three-Cup Chicken, stored in an airtight container, will stay for 3-4 days in the fridge. If frozen, the dish can be stored for up to 3 months.
More Asian-inspired recipes
- Indonesian Nasi Goreng (Indonesian Fried Rice)
- Filipino Chicken Adobo
- Japanese Chaliapin Steak
- Japanese Souffle Pancakes
- Hong Kong-style French Toast
No special tools required for this recipe, bestie! However, a good meat cleaver will come in handy if you’re looking to chop bone-in chicken thighs into smaller pieces. (Or you could just ask your butcher to do it for you.)
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And that’s it for today. What did you think this Taiwanese three-cup chicken recipe? Have you tried it before? What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.
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Taiwanese Three-Cup Chicken
- Total Time: 30 minutes
- Yield: Taiwanese Three-Cup Chicken
Taiwanese Three-Cup Chicken (San Bei Ji) is a tender chicken dish made using rice wine, soy sauce, and sesame oil. It’s an unpretentious, traditional favourite that’s perfect for restaurant-style cooking as well as more homely meals.
- 3 tablespoons sesame oil
- 3-inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced into (approx. 12) thin strips
- 12 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
- 4 whole scallions, trimmed and chopped into 1-inch pieces
- 2 dried red peppers (or 1 teaspoon red-pepper flakes)
- 2 pounds bone-in chicken thighs, cut into bite-size pieces
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- ½ cup rice wine
- ¼ cup light soy sauce
- 2 cups fresh Thai basil leaves
- Heat a wok or a deep pan over high heat and add 2 tablespoons of sesame oil. Once the oil reaches shimmering point (where it looks slightly wavy and moves around a little), add in the ginger, garlic, scallions and red peppers; cook until fragrant.
- Move the ingredients to the side of your pan, add the remaining tablespoon of sesame oil and allow it a little time to reach temperature.
- Add the chopped chicken; cook, stirring occasionally, until it has browned and started to develop a crisp edge. Stir in the brown sugar.
- Add the rice wine and soy sauce, and bring to a boil before lowering the heat to low-medium, allowing the sauce to simmer until it has reduced and begun to thicken. Approximately 15 minutes (depending on the heat).
- Turn off the heat, and stir in the fresh basil. Serve to your family, loved ones, and bestest of friends only!
- Do not use toasted sesame oil. Toasted sesame oil is more of a fancy dressing (similar to high quality olive oil, or balsamic vinegar) – it’s not meant for cooking with.
- If bone-in chicken isn’t available to you, or you just prefer your meals boneless, you can swap it out for the same amount of boneless chicken. Note that boneless is ever so slightly less flavourful.
- If you don’t have access to rice wine (or if alcohol is not your thing, there are non-alcoholic versions available), you can mix equal parts of white grape juice with lemon juice for a similar effect.
- If Thai basil leaves are difficult for you to obtain, it’s okay to use regular basil leaves. But Thai basil is available at many large supermarkets, and at most Asian markets.
- Cook Time: 30 minutes
- Category: Main Course
- Method: Stovetop
- Cuisine: Taiwanese
Keywords: taiwanese three-cup chicken, chinese three-cup chicken, 3-cup chicken, asian chicken recipe
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