Sanbeiji (三杯雞 or sān bēi jī), literally “three-cup chicken”, is probably the most popular and loved dish in Taiwan.
The eponymous “cups” in the name of the recipe is a reference to the equal parts of soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice vinegar that are used to make it.
Sanbeiji is a strong, salty, and savory braised chicken recipe, which gets its specific flavor from the larger volume of garlic, pieces of ginger, and fresh basil leaves.
The name of the recipe is a testament to the fact that most Taiwanese recipes were transmitted orally from generation to generation. The method for cooking san bei ji is similar to those used in Hakka cuisine with Chinese stewing (or red-braised) methods. However, the use of basil is refreshingly unique.
Origin of San Bei Ji
It appears that san bei ji originated in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 AD). Wen Tianxiang was a national hero, prominent writer and military general who was famous for his loyalty and heroism.
During a battle against the Mongols, Wen was captured by the invading Yuan armies of Kublai Khan. Although he was tortured for 4 years, he refused to yield. Before Wen’s execution, a friendly prison warden cooked the chicken dish for him using the only three ingredients he could find, including lard, wine and soy sauce. After the execution, the prison warden went back to his hometown in Jiangxi and told the story of General Wen. The rest is history.
How to make San Bei Ji
For each (large) chicken, a cup each of soy sauce, rice wine (usually mijiu – Chinese rice wine made from glutinous rice), and sesame oil are added. However, famous Taiwanese Chef Lin Shangquan believes that the traditional recipe called for a cup each of soy sauce, sesame oil, and sugar, in addition to ginger, garlic, and Thai basil. Now, traditional Chinese cups are equivalent to ¾ US cups or about 180 ml.
The chicken and the sauces are traditionally cooked in a clay pot on high heat for ten minutes. It is then cooked on low heat to allow the sauce to be absorbed by the meat. Sanbeiji is typically served with no sauce or almost no sauce. The chicken should be sizzling at the time of serving. This method allows the chicken to develop a crisper texture and richer flavor. San bei ji is served with steamed rice or congee (rice porridge). Other meats like pork or frog, are sometimes used instead of chicken to make this delicious authentic Taiwanese dish.
- 2 lb bone-in chicken legs (thighs and wings), cut into 2-inch pieces
- ¾ cup sesame oil
- 1 (3-inch) piece ginger , peeled and thickly sliced
- 15 cloves garlic (whole)
- 4 scallions trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 3 fresh red chilies halved
- ¾ cup rice wine
- ¾ cup soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 20 leaves Thai basil
- In a large skillet or wok, heat the sesame oil over medium-high heat.
- Add the ginger, garlic, scallions, and chilies. Cook for about 1 minute.
- Add the chicken pieces and sauté until lightly brown for 3 minutes.
- Add the rice wine and soy sauce. Bring to a boil.
- Reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer, uncovered. Cook until the chicken pieces are cooked through and the sauce has reduced, about 20 minutes.
- Stir in the sugar and cook for a minute, until dissolved.
- Add the basil, stir and cook for 30 seconds.
- Serve immediately with rice or congee.