I had always wondered what exactly goes into Sanbei Chicken (3 Cup Chicken or pork for the matter). Online recipes and so called expert chefs points me in all directions and it eventually tastes nothing like what I had recently in Taiwan. When they reached out, I had to accept the iSee Taiwan Foundation’s invitation to spend a couple of days on an all-round culinary immersion into the mystery of the Sanbei traditions. The recipe basically, has three key components- sesame oil, soy sauce and Chinese wine (hence the 3-Cup moniker. But that’s not the whole truth.) It may have origins in Jiangxi in China and sailed to Taiwan via migration culture way back when. But the Taiwanese celebrate that culinary wonder with twist and turns they now call their own, primarily with infusion of sesame oil instead of lard and of course the, by now famous, introduction of basil leaves.
It was a pleasure spinning around Taipei, Taichung and Yun Lin, meeting chefs, sauce makers, visiting farms, markets, dining in humble and fine restaurants with this group. There was a dialogue on the subject, a sort of much ado about something kind of discussion. The dish, in its various incantations, is extremely popular in Taiwan where they took it to another level of appreciation. The foundation is a cultural philanthropy created by the late computer entrepreneur Wen Shi Ren, who donated his company’s fortunes to this non-profit cause of promoting the unique cultures of his beloved Taiwan.
Back to that 3 Cup mystery. The eye opener meal of the program was a special “all basil and 3 cup” lunch in the middle of a basil farm in Yunlin. I adore such experiences- the open field, sitting in a comfortably appointed table in the midst of the basil farm (a key element in Sanbei recipes), a cleverly thought out 5 course menu created in collaboration with chefs and culinary school graduates and the happy farmers who tend to the field. Hard to beat.
First up was a palate opener Country Fiesta salad spiked with lovely accents of basil (we were sitting in the midst of a basil farm, for some background). Charming. Then the Amuse Bouche - Taiwan basil tartlets / traditional braised minced pork with puffed- rice cake , a Sanbei Pillow of sorts. Refreshing. Then the Fisherman’s Nostalgia, a clams soup with vegetable and vermicelli washed things down- so simple it made me think why we need to complicate things in life when simplicity had always been to the antidote to our ills in life. The main was an eye opener- Cherry Duck with greens and mash doused with a coffee sauce. You wonder, but yes it was strangely alluring, like swimming in ice pools in winter, for some at least. That sweet serving of Alpine Tea Dacquoise was the exciting finale goal. Still, all that culinary genius could only be made better when you dine in the midst of the basil field. John Lennon would have made a song about it if only they dined here. Contact the isee Taiwan Foundation for such experiences or directly at https://play.niceday.tw/supplier/5
The Sanbei Chicken Recipe
There is no definitive recipe for Sanbei Chicken and the key flavour profile, surprise, surprise is not a combination of just those 3 ingredients (of soy sauce, wine and sesame oil). You infuse the whole flavour base firstly, with slices of ginger fried till almost crispy, in sesame oil. Then, we are talking. So here goes my Sanbei recipe shoutout.
1kg of chicken chunks
¾ cup of soy sauce
¾ cup of sesame oil
Half cup of Chinese Hua Tiao wine
3 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp salt
2 tbsp Oyster sauce
2 tbsp dark thick soy sauce
15 garlic cloves..smashed
I big handful of basil leaves
500 ml of water
Add 300 grams of shitake mushrooms as desired
Method (best to do this in a claypot to let flavour breathe)
- Sear the chicken parts to lock juice in and firm up the skin. Set aside
- Fry the ginger with the sesame oil till aroma is released and ginger is almost crispy
- Midway frying the ginger, place the smashed garlic cloves in and fry till fragrant
- Add the oyster sauce, soy sauce, sugar and salt with 250ml of water and bring to a light boil
- Place chicken in, stir and ladle it all with sauce, then cover the lid to cook the chicken
- Open and close lid every minute (for 3minutes) to stir chicken and prevent from pot base burning
- Remove lid and add the 250ml water, and let it boil and braise till a little dry (just saucy enough)
- Now place the basil leaves in, give it quick toss and cover lid for 30 seconds
- Remove lid, check that dish should be quite dry but not overly so (continue to simmer till so if needed)
- Now cover the lid let the heat rise, then carefully pour the wine along the sides of the lid so the only the aroma will pierce thru the claypot and perfume the dish.
- Serve and enjoy (note, you can add some cut chillis into pot at step 8 to introduce some heat)
I am no cup rim sniffing tea aficionado but I can tell this one needs a bold and aromatic Iron Goddess or Tie Guan Yin tea to complete the sensation..sipped at 75 degrees Celsius.
If you need to know more about or enjoy more of Taiwan, the isee Taiwan Foundation folks will be glad to point you there. For starters, we don’t even have such a private organisation in Singapore that holistically promotes all that’s good about the land and on a non-profit basis.