Quick to cook and super aromatic, three cup chicken is a crowd-pleasing dish that you must try! Follow the tips to make it to perfection.
Note: This is a revised version of my 2017 post, featuring minor alterations, additional tips, process shots, a video, and FAQs.
In Chinese culinary culture, three criteria, color, aroma, and taste (色,香,味), are applied to judge the quality of a dish. Today’s dish Three Cup Chicken ticks all three boxes.
What is three cup chicken?
Three cup chicken (Sān Bēi Jī, 三杯鸡) is widely considered to be a Taiwanese specialty, while some suggest that it originated in Jiangxi province, China, over 700 years ago. The name “Three cup” is said to refer to the equal usage of three key condiments: sesame oil, Shaoxing rice wine, and soy sauce.
However, I don’t think in reality any chef or home cook would apply the literal proportion of these ingredients. That would result in an overly salty and greasy taste. Instead, I guess that the idea is to emphasize the importance of these condiments which distinguishes this dish from others.
Three cup chicken offers a powerful blend of aromas and flavors: savory, umami, nutty, garlicky, oniony, peppery, and sweet. This flavor profile is also used for cooking other ingredients like squid, tofu, mushroom, eggplant, and more.
Ingredients & substitutes
Here is a list of ingredients for this dish. Substitute ideas are explained below the list.
- Chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized chunks
- Sesame oil
- Shaoxing rice wine
- Soy sauce, both the light and dark versions
- Aromatics: garlic, ginger, scallions, and basil
- Sugar and white pepper
- Bell pepper
Which cuts of chicken
The traditional version of three cup chicken calls for bone-in, skin-on, chunky pieces of a whole chicken which produces the optimal flavor. To reduce the workload, I usually use skin-on chicken thighs with the bones removed. It’s a great cut to mimic the authentic taste.
Other options include chicken wings (cut into segments), drumsticks, and skinless thighs. Chicken breast is not ideal but acceptable if you pay attention not to overcook it.
Chinese sesame oil is made of toasted sesame seeds. Its intensely nutty flavor plays a key role in creating the signature aroma of three cup chicken. Lard (pork fat) is another oil option for this dish. I love this alternative version equally.
Shaoxing rice wine
In this recipe, Shaoxing rice wine acts as a cooking liquid, in place of water, to braise the chicken (Like how you make the beloved Braised Pork Belly). Its generous quantity gives the chicken a complex fragrance.
To substitute, you may use dry sherry, other types of rice wine (don’t confuse it with rice vinegar though), or white wine. These substations would alter the general taste of the dish, but it still tastes nice nevertheless.
Soy sauce lends the dish a flavorsome saltiness which is much more sophisticated than that of salt (Think how Soy Sauce Chicken is cooked). I use both light and dark soy sauce. The latter adds a hint of sweetness as well as an appetizing brown shine.
Thai basil (known as 九层塔 in Chinese) adds another layer of aroma. Although some other versions of the dish doesn’t involve this herb, it’s a key element in the Taiwanese version.
If you have trouble sourcing Thai basil leaves, replace it with Italian basil (aka sweet basil) which has a milder taste. Also, use the green part of scallions as a substitute if you aren’t a fan of basil.
Be generous with ginger and garlic. Not only do they lend flavor to the chicken, but they are also super tasty on their own. During braising, they lose much of their spiciness and absorb lots of goodness from the sauce.
Once you have all the ingredients measured and prepared, it will only take 15 minutes or so to cook. Here is the workflow:
Step 1: Fry the aromatics
Pour a generous amount of sesame oil into a wok or a large skillet (frying pan). Put in sliced ginger, whole cloves of garlic, and the white part of scallions. Gently fry them over low heat until the garlic gains brown spots on the surface.
Step 2: Sear the chicken
Turn the heat up to medium. Use a spatula to push the aromatics to one side of the wok. Add the chicken chunks and arrange them in a single layer so that each piece touches the hot surface.
Once the bottom side turns lightly golden, flip and stir the chicken to quickly sear other sides. Once the meat loses most of its pinkness, move on to the next step.
Step 3: Braised the chicken
Add Shaoxing rice wine, light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, sugar, and white pepper. Toss to distribute the seasonings.
Cover with a lid. Leave to cook over high heat for about 5 minutes. Extend the braising time to 8 minutes if using chicken wings, 12 minutes for drumsticks, or 3 minutes for chicken breast pieces.
Step 4: Reduce the sauce
Uncover the wok and stir in bell pepper and the green part of the scallions. Keep the heat high and let the cooking liquid boil vigorously until it reduces to a desired volume and consistency.
Turn off the heat then stir in a little more sesame oil, along with a good handful of fresh basil leaves.
What to serve with
Alternatively, serve it as a centerpiece for multi-dish meals. Pairing options include other protein dishes (e.g. Steamed Pork Ribs, Sichuan Boiled Beef, Shrimp & Egg Stir-Fry), vegetable dishes (e.g. Tiger Skin Pepper, Smashed Cucumber), and soups (e.g. Hot & Sour Soup, Egg Drop Soup).
Make ahead & reheat
Three cup chicken is a great dish to prepare in big batches. Increase the ingredient quantity proportionally and lengthen the cooking time accordingly. Keep any leftovers in the fridge for up to 4 days.
If you are not serving it right away, leave out the final step of adding basil leaves and the last portion of sesame oil. Put them in when the reheated dish becomes piping hot.
A: Absolutely! You can fresh chilies as a substitute for bell pepper. If using dried ones, fry them with ginger and garlic to fully release their flavor (be careful not to burn them).
A: It’s not necessary for this recipe (unlike what you do for stir-fried dishes like Kung Pao Chicken) The flavor of the sauce penetrates the chicken during braising.
A: Yes, you can mix 1 tablespoons of cornstarch with the same amount of water, then add the slurry at the end to thicken the sauce.
A: You can make the dish in a clay pot. Make sure to check the manufacturer’s instructions as some can not be used on electric/induction hobs, or you need to pre-soak the pot before cooking. Alternatively, cook the dish in a wok/skillet, then transfer it to a preheated clay pot for serving.
A: You could but it wouldn’t save you time as it doesn’t take long to cook it in regular cookware.
Other easy chicken dishes
Looking for more tasty ways to cook chicken? Here are some great recipes to try:
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Three Cup Chicken (San Bei Ji, 三杯鸡)
- 3½ tablespoon sesame oil - divided
- 20 slice ginger
- 20 clove garlic
- 3 stalk scallions - white and green parts separated
- 2 lb chicken thighs - cut into bite-sized chunks (see note 1)
- ½ cup Shaoxing rice wine - (see note 2)
- 2 tablespoon light soy sauce
- 2 tablespoon dark soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar - or white sugar, rock sugar
- ¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1 bell pepper - cut into chunky pieces
- 1 handful fresh Thai basil - (see note 3)
Fry the aromatics
- Pour 3 tablespoons of sesame oil, leaving ½ tablespoonful for later use, into a wok/large skillet, then add ginger slices, garlic (whole or halved), and the white part of the scallions. Fry over low heat until they become fragrant and the garlic browns slightly.
Sear the chicken
- Push the aromatics to the side of the wok/skillet. Then put in chicken pieces. Arrange them in a single layer and sear them over medium heat. Flip and stir to brown other sides until they lose most of their pinkness.
Braised the chicken
- Add Shaoxing rice wine, light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, sugar, and white pepper. Toss briefly then cover with a lid. Leave to braise over high heat for about 5 minutes (Alter the cooking time to 8 for chicken wings, 12 minutes for drumsticks, or 3 minutes for breasts).
Reduce the sauce
- Open the lid and stir in bell pepper and the green part of the scallions. Leave it to cook further uncovered (keep the heat high).
- Once the cooking liquid reduces to a desired amount (see note 4), turn off the heat. Stir in the remaining ½ tablespoon of sesame oil, and fresh basil leaves. Dish out and serve warm with steamed rice.
- The less liquid, the saltier the dish would taste;
- The sauce is great for mixing into steamed rice;
- The consistency of the sauce thickens as it cools.
NUTRITION DISCLOSURE: Nutritional information on this website is provided as a courtesy to readers. It should be considered estimates. Please use your own brand nutritional values or your preferred nutrition calculator to double check against our estimates.