Taiwan Eats: Three Cup Chicken (San Bei Ji)

Tender chicken is braised with garlic and ginger in a sweet and savory sauce. Cathy Erway

You won't see a lot of strict rules in Taiwanese recipes. But this dish, one of the island's most famous, is an exception. It calls upon equal parts soy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil to create a viscous, dark sauce for braising chopped pieces of bone-in chicken. These are the "three cups" in question, and from the dish's name alone, a skeletal recipe emerges.

Equal parts soy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil are the foundation of Three Cup Chicken's cooking liquid.

What its name doesn't give away, however, is that Three Cup Chicken also gets its intense flavor from heaps of whole garlic cloves and big rounds of ginger, fried in the sesame oil until golden-brown. When your chicken's added, they continue to cook until soft and sweet, mingling with sugar that's been added to the braising liquids. Toward the end of cooking, the whole dish is showered liberally with fresh basil leaves—the telltale sign that it's Taiwanese, although the dish has roots in Southern China. When it's ready to serve, the reddish-stained chicken is crowded with the soft, tender garlic cloves and lightly candied ginger, coated with a slightly reduced sauce, and peppered with herbs. It really is an exercise in over-abundance, and the result proves just what a good thing that can be.

The garlic, ginger, and chilis are fried first to release their aromas into the cooking oil.

The dish, known as San Bei Ji in Taiwan, has become a standard menu item at Taiwanese restaurants, and its flavor profile has inspired all sorts of variations, the most common one being three cup-style braised squid or cuttlefish. But chicken is the classic rendition, and to make it the authentic way, it would traditionally be cooked in an old-fashioned clay pot. Luckily, it's pretty easy to pull off in any saucepan or wok at home.

Cutting the chicken thighs in half along (but not through) the bone is an easy at-home method of making all the pieces the same size.

In Taiwan, San Bei Gi would normally be made with chicken that's been chopped into bite-sized, bone-in pieces. A drumstick, for instance, would be divvied into two or three pieces crosswise, straight through the bone. Other parts would be pared down to a similar size. You can ask a butcher to cut the chicken like that for you, or even take a cleaver to it yourself if you're feeling adventurous, but at home I opt for an easier path by cutting chicken pieces to about the same size without cutting through the bone. For example, when I made this with chicken thighs and drumsticks, I cut the thighs in half by slicing alongside—but not through—the bone and left the drumsticks as-is, so that all the pieces were about the same size. This will ensure that everything cooks evenly.

Served with rice to absorb all its sauce, Three Cup Chicken is a pungent, lipsmacking main course. Pair it with a simple sautéed vegetable side for a hearty and satisfying meal.