The Familiar Taste of Three-Cup Chicken

 

Do you know this beloved Chinese chicken dish?

Do you know this beloved Chinese chicken dish?

After seeing this recipe pop up in the New York Times Sunday magazine recently, as well as a few new Chinese cookbooks, I admit I was intrigued.

What was this “Three-Cup Chicken” everyone was suddenly talking about?

Then, I made it, tasted it, and had a good chuckle.

Oh, it’s basil chicken.

Or at least that’s the old standby name of it on Chinese restaurant menus of the dish I’ve actually enjoyed time and again already.

That’s not to say this traditional Taiwanese dish isn’t worth crowing about.

Indeed, it’s a perfect weeknight dish to spoon over fluffy steamed rice.

Traditionally, it was made with one cup of sesame oil, one cup of rice wine and one cup of soy sauce. Hence, the name. Thankfully, this is one time when modern-day versions are a vast improvement over the original, because I don’t think our arteries could take that much sesame oil in one dish.

These days, the dish is made with those same ingredients, but using a fraction of those measurements.

The soy, rice wine and sesame oil, plus copious coins of ginger, a plethora of whole garlic cloves, and a restrained amount of dried red peppers, come together to create a slightly syrupy sauce that’s a little sweet, kind of caramelized, and with barely a tickle of spice on the throat.

Don’t be scared off by the 12 cloves of garlic. Because they are left whole, they add a gentle flavor to the dish, not the vampire-like bite you’d get if they had been all minced. The cloves soften as the dish cooks. You can choose to eat the cloves or eat around them.

I used boneless, skinless chicken thighs for this dish. But as the New York Times story suggests, you could easily use bone-in, skin-on thighs or chicken wings or whole chicken legs, if you like.

Use whatever basil you can get your hands on easily — Italian, Thai, purple or lemon. Any will work and give the dish its own distinctiveness. The generous two cups of basil is what really completes this dish, too, providing an oomph of garden freshness.

The only thing I might do differently next time is add the green onions more toward the end of the cooking, rather than at the beginning as called for. When they’re added so early, they fairly break down to nothing by the time the dish is done.

Whether you choose to refer to it as three-cup chicken or basil chicken, you will definitely call it tasty and comforting.

Don't skimp on the basil.

Don’t skimp on the basil.

Three-Cup Chicken

(Serves 4)

3 tablespoons sesame oil

1 (2-to-3-inch) piece of ginger, peeled and sliced into coins, approximately 12

12 cloves of garlic, peeled

4 whole scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

3 dried red peppers or 1 teaspoon red-pepper flakes

2 pounds chicken thighs, boneless or bone-in, cut into bite-size pieces

1 tablespoon unrefined or light brown sugar

½ cup rice wine

¼ cup light soy sauce

2 cups fresh Thai basil leaves or regular basil leaves

Heat a wok over high heat and add 2 tablespoons sesame oil. When the oil shimmers, add the ginger, garlic, scallions and peppers, and cook until fragrant, approximately 2 minutes.

Scrape the aromatics to the sides of the wok, add remaining oil and allow to heat through. Add the chicken, and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is browned and crisping at the edges, approximately 5 to 7 minutes.

Add sugar and stir to combine, then add the rice wine and soy sauce, and bring just to a boil. Lower the heat, then simmer until the sauce has reduced and started to thicken, approximately 15 minutes.

Turn off the heat, add the basil and stir to combine. Serve with white rice.

From the New York Times, June 14, 2015

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And: Stir-Fried Chicken with Tomatoes

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And: My Mom’s Chicken Rice

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