Three Cup Chicken––regardless of whether or not you’ve heard of it, you’ll definitely like it. It’s hard not to––it’s just that tasty. I developed this recipe with the help of my grandma, and thus, it has the coveted grandma stamp of approval!
What is Three Cup Chicken?
Three Cup Chicken, or “San Bei Ji” (三杯鸡) is a popular standard dish in Chinese and Taiwanese cuisine. The name refers to the recipe used to make it: A cup each of the three ingredients that create the sauce: rice wine, soy sauce, and sesame oil.
It’s kind of reminiscent of why pound cake is called pound cake––traditional recipes used a pound each of flour, eggs, butter, and sugar.
You’ll notice, however, that our version isn’t exactly using three whole cups of anything. That 3 cup chicken recipe must have been for a BOATLOAD of chicken.
Developing Our Family’s Recipe
No two households make Three Cup Chicken the exact same way, but the basic recipe uses those three sauce ingredients to create a thick, dark, reduced syrup that absorbs right into the chicken.
It’s a really easy recipe, because everything is pretty much chop and drop––a one-pot deal that comes together quicker than a kick in the pants.
Even my mom’s and my grandmother’s versions of San Bei Ji are slightly different. My mom likes to add lots of scallions to hers, slicing them into 2 inch pieces and simmering them with the chicken until they’re sweet and sticky.
My grandmother, on the other hand, goes the more exotic route of adding Thai basil (apparently, this is the way a lot of Taiwanese folks like to make it. I’m just tellin’ ya what Wikipedia seems to be telling me. I’m just here for the food).
In any case, I wholeheartedly endorse that culinary decision!
You’ll also note that our three cup chicken is very dark and richly colored. This is a personal preference. The ingredient that adds that deep color is the dark soy sauce. If you’d like your dish lighter, just add less.
A Note on Thai Basil:
Thai basil can usually be found at any Asian market. You can also get the seeds and grow them in your garden. In fact, in past years, we’ve found that Thai basil is much hardier and faster-growing than regular basil. It has a more anise-y flavor compared to the Italian stuff, and it totally amps up the flavor of whatever you throw it in. That said, if finding it proves difficult, you can certainly throw in some regular basil and/or scallions and call it a day.
Final Note! This Three Cup Chicken recipe was originally published on July 20, 2013. It was one of the very first recipes on The Woks of Life (we started the blog in June 2013). Since our older recipes are some of our family’s favorites, we’ve updated this Three Cup Chicken recipe (San Bei Ji) with new photos and stories as of March 11, 2019.
So, without further ado, here’s the recipe! Straight from a Chinese grandmother’s repertoire.
Three Cup Chicken (San Bei Ji): The Recipe
Then turn up the heat to high, and add the chicken wings to the wok all in one layer.
Sear the chicken until golden brown on both sides.
Stir and cover the wok. Turn the heat down to medium and simmer for 15 minutes to cook the chicken through (cook for 20 minutes if you want the chicken to be more tender).
Then remove the cover and turn up the heat to rapidly reduce the sauce for a few minutes until it clings to the chicken and gives it a rich, dark color. Make sure to stir the chicken during this process to prevent burning.
Throw in your Thai basil and/or scallions and fry another minute until it’s wilted.
You’ll be a happy camper with this San Bei Ji, trust me.
Three Cup Chicken (San Bei Ji)
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil (15 ml)
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil (30 ml)
- 6 slices ginger
- 5 cloves garlic (sliced)
- 1 dried chili (halved)
- 1 kg chicken wings (2 ¼ lbs, cut at the joint where the drumette and the wingette meet, wing tips discarded. You can also just use pre-cut chicken drumettes and wingettes.)
- 1/4 cup warm water (60 ml)
- 1/4 cup shaoxing wine (60 ml)
- 2-5 teaspoons dark soy sauce (10-25 ml)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons light soy sauce (22 ml)
- 2 teaspoons sugar (8g)
- Small bunch of Thai basil leaves or 2 scallions, cut into 2-inch lengths (or both!)
- Start by putting the sesame oil, vegetable oil, ginger, garlic, and red chili into your wok over medium heat. Let the aromatics infuse the oil for a couple minutes.
- Then turn up the heat to high, and add the chicken wings to the wok all in one layer. Sear the chicken until golden brown on both sides. Then add 1/4 cup warm water, ¼ cup Shaoxing wine, dark soy sauce (2-5 teaspoons, depending on how dark you’d like the dish to be), 1 1/2 tablespoons light soy sauce, and 2 teaspoons sugar.
- Stir and cover the wok. Turn the heat down to medium and simmer for 15 minutes to cook the chicken through (cook for 20 minutes if you want the chicken to be more tender).
- Then remove the cover and turn up the heat to rapidly reduce the sauce for a few minutes until it clings to the chicken and gives it a rich, dark color. Make sure to stir the chicken during this process to prevent burning.
- Throw in your Thai basil and/or scallions and fry another minute until it’s wilted. Serve!