Taiwanese Three Cup Chicken (San Bei Ji) Recipe

A bowl of Taiwanese three cup chicken.
Tender chicken is braised with garlic and ginger in a sweet and savory sauce.

Serious Eats / Cathy Erway

Why It Works

  • The bold and flavorful cooking liquid is incredibly easy, made from equal parts soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice wine.
  • By cooking the garlic and ginger in the oil first, then adding the chicken and cooking liquid, the entire dish can be made quickly in just one skillet or wok.
  • Two options for cutting up the chicken allow you to choose between a more traditional version (with the chicken cut into 3-inch, bone-in pieces), or a more home-cook-friendly version (with the drumsticks left whole and the thighs cut in half along—but not through—the bone).

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.

Three bowls filled with soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice wine
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 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 board with pieces of raw chicken, garlic cloves, and sliced ginger
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 Ji 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.

Recipe Facts

Active: 25 mins
Total: 30 mins
Serves: 4 to 6 servings

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Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup Asian sesame oil

  • One (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced into rounds

  • 12-15 medium garlic cloves, peeled

  • 1-2 fresh Thai red chiles, stemmed and halved

  • 2 pounds skin-on chicken drumsticks, thighs, and/or wings, either chopped into 3-inch, bone-in pieces, or thighs halved along along the bone, wings split at the joint, and drumsticks left whole

  • 1/2 cup rice wine

  • 1/4 cup soy sauce

  • 1 tablespoon sugar

  • 2 cups fresh Thai basil leaves (from 1 large bunch)

  • Steamed white rice, for serving

Directions

  1. Heat sesame oil in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add ginger, garlic, and chiles and cook until very fragrant, about 1 minute.

    Ginger, chiles, and garlic sizzling in oil in bottom of wok
  2. Add chicken pieces to the skillet in a single layer and cook, tilting the pan if necessary to submerge all pieces in the oil, for 1 minute. Flip chicken pieces and cook for 1 minute longer.

  3. Add rice wine, soy sauce, and sugar and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce heat to a simmer. Partially cover the skillet to prevent splashes of oil and cook, turning the chicken pieces every few minutes, until the chicken is cooked through, about 15 minutes. Stir in Thai basil and remove from heat. Serve immediately with rice.


Note: If buying chicken from a butcher, ask for pieces to be chopped to 3-inch pieces with the bones in and skin on.

Special equipment

Large wok or deep skillet

Nutrition Facts (per serving)
445 Calories
23g Fat
14g Carbs
39g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 4 to 6
Amount per serving
Calories 445
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 23g 29%
Saturated Fat 5g 25%
Cholesterol 192mg 64%
Sodium 735mg 32%
Total Carbohydrate 14g 5%
Dietary Fiber 1g 2%
Total Sugars 2g
Protein 39g
Vitamin C 4mg 21%
Calcium 51mg 4%
Iron 2mg 13%
Potassium 517mg 11%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)