Gong xi fa çai – a Happy Chinese New Year to everyone! As we begin the Year of the Wooden Horse, I am also posting the 1,000th post for this blog. In the nine years that have passed since Midge in the Kitchen started as Sybaritic Diversions, I’ve come quite a long way from just writing about restaurants in the Eastwood/ Ortigas area to doing a lot of cooking & baking; putting twists on old recipes while discovering new ones from various sources.
Today’s recipe is one such example of a discovery that I’d put a personal spin on. In the days leading up to the Chinese New Year, the fun & interestingly quirky food blog Pepper.ph featured several Chinese chicken recipes ranging from that perennial crowd-pleaser lemon chicken to the more incendiary kung pao chicken. But what really got my attention was a recipe for a dish I haven’t had for quite some time now: sanbeiji - three-cups chicken.
According to the legend, sanbeiji was the last meal prepared for & eaten by the 13th Century Chinese patriot Wen Tianxiang who ran afoul of the Mongol warlord Kublai Khan. The story goes that the Mongolian warden was so impressed by the condemned man’s gumption, that he made him a final meal by braising chicken – a luxury at the time – in a cup each of sesame oil, soy sauce, & rice wine. It is from this specific ratio of ingredients that the dish got its name.
Nowadays, sanbeiji is more popular in Taiwan than it is in Mainland China. Indeed, it is often said that the strength of any restaurant specializing in Taiwanese cuisine is almost always measured by the goodness of its sanbeiji. It is said that the modern form of the dish as popularized by chef Lin Shangquan involves the original soy-sesame-rice-wine mixture in the same amounts augmented by the addition of sugar, garlic, & – surprisingly – basil leaves. The basil is supposed to impart a fresh taste that balances the saltiness of the soy sauce against the sweetness of all the other ingredients.
The version of the dish I’m most familiar with is Panciteria Lido’s three-cups chicken. At that nigh-on legendary eatery, the chicken is cooked and served smoking-hot in an earthenware casserole with a lid. Nearly all of the sauce has reduced until it has become more of a glaze for the tender fowl & the garlic cloves cooked with it have become soft & buttery with a mild, nutty flavor. Leeks rather than basil add a wonted touch of freshness.
Since I’ve been craving three-cups chicken for ages, I decided to give Pepper.ph’s recipe a go. That us, alas, until I checked the kitchen & found I had neither shaoxing wine nor fresh basil. Plus, the original recipe featured chicken wings; what I had on hand was a whole fowl! But when you want something badly enough, you just have to find a way to get what you want – & then some. I simply butchered the whole chicken & used the wings, drumsticks, neck, & thighs as dark meat was just perfect for sweet-braising. The rest of the fowl I stuck back in the freezer for another use. (Hainanese chicken rice, most likely!)
My version of this dish swaps the rice wine for lemon-flavored alcopop (believe it or not, regular white Tanduay Ice works like a charm) and the basil for bay laurel which adds a uniquely pleasant, almost sweetly vegetal taste to the dish. The addition of both star anise & peppercorns also gave the dish a more distinctly Oriental fragrance that further removes any gaminess from the chicken. Just one thing though: use regular black peppercorns if you’re making this for the tender-tongued or for children. Otherwise, add some welcome fire to the dish by using the floral yet fiery Sichuan peppercorns.
This dish went over quite well served with plain white rice & some homemade mango pickles. It was sweet, meaty, headily fragrant, & totally moreish.
Suburban Sanbeiji (The Suburban Girl’s Three-Cups Chicken)
- Approximately 1 kilo assorted chicken parts (wings, thighs, drumsticks)
- 3 tablespoons dark sesame oil
- 1/3 cup granulated white sugar
- 1/3 cup lemon-flavored alcopop or rice wine
- 1/3 cup soy sauce
- 1/3 cup whole peeled garlic cloves (around 12 – 14 big cloves)
- 3 pieces star anise, broken into segments
- Scant 1/4 teaspoon whole black or Sichuan peppercorns
- 2 bay laurel leaves, broken in half
Heat a medium-sized saucepan or large earthenware casserole over medium-high heat. Add the sesame oil & heat until it sizzles. Add the garlic & cook until browned; add the star anise & peppercorns & stir-fry till fragrant. Add the chicken & cook for about 3 – 4 minutes.
Pour in the alcopop & soy sauce & stir well. Add the sugar & stir till dissolved. Bring to a boil & reduce the heat to medium. Allow to boil uncovered for 20 minutes; add the bay laurel during the last five minutes of cooking. Serve immediately.