Three cup chicken is a classic Taiwanese chicken dish (San Bei Ji) made by simmering chicken with soy sauce, wine, and Thai basil. Learn how to make this popular chicken recipe from Chinese and Taiwanese cuisine.
When my husband and I were newlyweds, we moved to Taipei after we both finished college so that my husband could take a Mandarin Chinese language program for 1 year at National Taiwan Normal University. Although our time in Taiwan was short, we met wonderful people and had the most delicious Chinese food there.
I had this three cup chicken (San Bei Ji, 三杯鸡) for the first time in 1996 when we were invited to a local Taiwanese home for a dinner. The fragrance of Thai basil mingled in chicken wings in a very dark sauce was very foreign to me at first, but it hit me with a taste sensation. I loved everything about it – flavor, texture, and even the dark look!
What is Three Cup Chicken (San Bei Ji, 三杯鸡)?
- San (三) = three
- Bei (杯) = cup
- Ji (鸡) = chicken
Traditionally, the dish is made with one cup each of three liquids – rice wine, soy sauce and sesame oil. Then chicken pieces are added and braised with the liquids in a clay pot. In the modern adaptation of cooking this dish, you don’t have to use exactly 1 cup of each liquid, and the addition of basil, garlic, ginger, and chili bring more flavor to the dish.
Recipe Ingredients and Substitutions
- Chicken – Bone-in chicken is more suitable than boneless for making San Bei Ji. It brings a deeper flavor to the dish since you will simmer and coat the chicken in the sauce. For those of you shopping in U.S. grocery stores, I recommend what are often labelled “chicken party wings.” You can use bone-in chicken thighs or drumsticks instead, but I found this dish is better with party wings since they will cook quicker and taste better with the glaze-like sauce.
- Thai basil – Fresh Thai basil delivers a slightly different fragrance and taste than the common sweet Italian basil. You can tell the difference by the color of the stem. Thai basil has a dark purple hue on the stem and has a peppery taste and almost licorice-like fragrance on the leaves when you smell them. Most Asian grocery stores carry fresh Thai basil and luckily, it is inexpensive. You can use Italian basil if you can’t find Thai basil.
- Dark Soy Sauce – It’s commonly used in Chinese cuisine to add color and flavor to the dish. It has a thicker consistency and richer taste than regular soy sauce, but you can use regular soy sauce if you have to.
- Soy Sauce – This will season the dish over all.
- Rice Wine – Preferably Chinese shaoxing wine. If not, use any rice wine, or substitute with white wine.
- Sesame Oil – Traditionally chicken were seared in sesame oil first before adding the liquid. However, sesame oil has a low smoking point, so I recommend mixing it with vegetable cooking oil to increase the smoking point when you cook the chicken. I prefer dark sesame oil, along with Thai basil, to bring out more flavor and fragrance.
- Garlic – Use whole cloves or slice them in half. They become mellow and sweet in the sauce after the dish has simmered. Adjust the amount depending on your preference.
- Ginger – A few slices of fresh ginger adds a sharpness to the dish. You can substitute 1 tsp of ginger puree or 1/2 tsp of ginger powder.
- Dried Chilies – They add a subtle heat to the dish. You can omit them if you prefer.
- Sugar – It adds a hint of sweetness and balances the over-all flavor in the dish.
I like to trim off the extra loose skin from the chicken wings with a pair of scissors. This will reduce the amount of fat and help maintain a lighter taste in the sauce without being too greasy.
Can I use boneless skinless chicken parts instead?
Although I highly recommend using bone-in chicken parts, preferably party wings, to get the best result and taste, you can certainly use boneless, skinless chicken thighs. Reduce the amount of soy sauce (about 25%), and shorten the simmering time if you are doing so.
What herb can I use if I can’t find Thai Basil?
Thai basil is the key ingredient to get the flavor of San Bei Ji, so there’s not an easy substitute. However, you can use Italian basil leaves and Korean perilla leaves (use them both if you can) if you don’t mind a slightly altered taste. You should use a greater amount of them than is specified if you are substituting. Fresh Thai basil is commonly found in many Asian grocery stores. They are also easy to grow in a pot if you can get seeds and don’t mind planting them.
Do I have to cook in a clay pot?
If you want to prepare it the traditional way, use a clay pot. But any pot, pan or wok that has a heavy lid would work, too.
How to Make Taiwanese Three Cup Chicken (San Bei Ji)
Trim off the extra loose skin from the wings with a pair of scissors.
Heat oil and a tablespoon of sesame oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Brown chicken wings until slightly golden. Add the garlic and ginger slices; toss well.
Reduce the heat to medium and cover with a lid. Simmer the wings in the sauce for 15 minutes.
Uncover and increase the heat to high. Continue to cook to reduce the sauce a little, about 3 minutes.
Add the fresh Thai basil leaves (as much as you want) and stir. Remove the pan from the heat.
Drizzle in 2 tablespoons of sesame oil and let the chicken rest for 5 minutes before you serve. The sauce will thicken more as it rests.
It is best to serve San Bei Ji hot, and eat it all–don’t plan on saving leftovers. Serve with rice and don’t forget to spoon some of the sauce from the pan and drizzle it over your chicken and rice. Enjoy not only the wings, but the wilted basil and the garlic pieces as well.
Side Dish Recommendation:
More Chicken Wings Recipes
- Korean Honey Garlic Chicken Wings
- Honey Balsamic Chicken Wings
- Baked Sweet and Spicy Sticky Chicken Wings
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Taiwanese Three Cup Chicken (San Bei Ji)
- 2 1/2 lb chicken party wings
- 2 tablespoon oil
- 3 tablespoon sesame oil divided
- 4-5 thin slices fresh ginger
- 10 cloves garlic sliced in half
- 4-5 dried red chili optional
- 1/2 cup shaoxing wine (Chinese rice wine)
- 3 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 1/2 tablespoon dark soy sauce
- 2 tablespoon sugar
- 2 cup Thai basil loosely packed
- (Optional but recommended) Trim off the extra loose skin from the chicken party wings with a pair of scissors. Discard the skin.
- Heat oil and a tablespoon of sesame oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Brown chicken wings until slightly golden. Add the garlic and ginger slices; toss well.
- Uncover and increase the heat to high. Continue to cook to reduce the sauce a little, about 3 minutes. Add the fresh Thai basil leaves (as much as you want) and stir. Remove the pan from the heat.
- Drizzle in the remaining 2 tablespoons of sesame oil and let the chicken rest for 5 minutes before you serve. The sauce will thicken more as it rests. Serve hot with rice.