San bei ji, three cup chicken, is an easy recipe that yields chicken coated with a rich, savory glaze. With just a few steps and simple ingredients, this recipe is sure to become a regular household meal.
San bei ji is a quick and easy chicken dish popular in both Chinese and Taiwanese culture. The name san bei ji translates word for word to “three cup chicken.” The “three cups” refers to the three main ingredients of the sauce:
- Soy sauce
- Rice wine
- Sesame oil
Traditionally, one cup of, or equal parts of, soy sauce, cooking wine, and sesame oil are added to the chicken to make the sauce. This sauce then reduces down into a rich, salty, and savory glaze. This process also helps the chicken to absorb some of the sauce flavors.
This dish is also typically made in a clay pot. Earthenware is excellent at retaining heat and helps to crisp the outside of the chicken. It is also great at concentrating flavors, which is an important part of san bei ji. Some say that this dish should ideally be sizzling when serving.
Modern san bei ji recipes also add basil for added fragrance. People also like to change the proportions of soy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil to their tastes.
The Origins of Three Cup Chicken
The san bei ji recipe has several different legends tied to its origin. The most popular says this dish originated during the Southern Song Dynasty. During this period lived Wen Tianxiang, a military general. He was captured by the armies of Kublai Khan (from the Mongol empire). Even after four years of torture, Wen refused to yield. Before his execution, a prison warden cooked a chicken dish with the only three ingredients available: lard, wine, and soy sauce. The very same prison warden then returned to his hometown in the Jiangxi province and shared this story, marking the origins of this now popular dish.
Some other legends include an ill child in Ningdu and a farmer’s family in Wanzai county.
Although this dish originated and is popular in China’s Jiangxi province, it may be even more popular in Taiwanese cuisine. So, there seems to be little to no difference between a Chinese three cup chicken and a Taiwanese three cup chicken recipe.
How to Make San Bei Ji (3 Cup Chicken)
Heat some oil in a pot. Add the garlic, ginger, and chili (optional) and sauté them until lightly golden brown. Add in the chicken and stir to combine with the ginger, garlic, and optional chili.
Add in the soy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil. Cover and let the chicken simmer for 10 minutes on medium-low to medium heat.
Uncover the chicken and continue simmering for another 10-15 minutes until the sauce thickens and coats the chicken well.
Turn off the heat and add in the basil leaves. Stir to let the residual heat wilt the basil leaves and release their fragrance.
Three cup chicken is best served and enjoyed as the main course with a bed of warm rice.
- My recipe for three cup chicken follows the traditional equal parts of soy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil because it makes it simple to adapt depending on how much chicken you are preparing. You can adjust the amounts to your tastes. For example, you can add less sesame oil for a less rich sauce/glaze. You can also experiment with using more ginger and garlic as well.
- If you want to shorten the time required to reduce the sauce, use a pot with wider or shorter sides so that the extra moisture can evaporate quicker.
San Bei Ji, Three Cup Chicken (三杯雞)
- 2 lbs chicken thighs or drumsticks
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1/4 cup rice wine
- 1/4 cup sesame oil
- 2 inches ginger sliced
- 10 cloves garlic smashed and coarsely chopped
- 2 dried chilis or 1 tsp chili flakes (optional)
- 1 cup basil leaves very packed (regular and/or Thai basil)
- Heat some oil in a pot. Add the garlic, ginger, and optional chili. Sauté for about a minute until lightly golden brown.
- Add in the chicken and stir to combine with the ginger, garlic, and optional chili.
- Add in the soy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil. Cover and let the chicken simmer for 10 minutes on medium-low to medium heat.
- Uncover the chicken and continue simmering for another 10-15 minutes until the sauce has thickened and coats the chicken well.
- Add in the basil leaves. Turn off the heat and stir to let the residual heat wilt the basil leaves and release their fragrance.