What, Exactly, Is 3 Cup Chicken?

Three cup chicken sounds like a super-easy casserole recipe for one person: Throw a cup of cooked chicken in a pan with a cup of pasta or potatoes and top it with a cup of shredded cheese. Pretty tasty for something we just invented on the spur of the moment, but as it turns out, it's not really a thing (yet). The three cup chicken we're talking about here is a hen of a different color, as it's a Taiwanese stir fry.

Los Angeles-based restaurateur Jonathan Yao tells Mashed in an exclusive interview that three-cup chicken is a Taiwanese must-try and a good entry point for those inexperienced with that country's cuisine. Unlike our made-up recipe, the number in the name does not refer to the total ingredients. Instead, the phrase "san bei ji" — which Google Translate assures us does, in fact, mean "three cup chicken" — is a reference to the fact that the recipe calls for copious amounts of three different liquids: rice wine, sesame oil, and soy sauce.

History of 3 cup chicken

While three cup chicken is seen as classically Taiwanese, like many other foods from that country, it has roots in mainland China. In fact, one origin story dates the dish — or some prototype — all the way back to the 13th century.

As the legend goes, Wen Tianxiang, who was perhaps the top scholar and government official during the Song Dynasty, fell out of favor during the subsequent Yuan Dynasty. So much so that he wound up not only in prison but on death row. The night before his execution, a prison guard took pity on him and decided to make him one last meal from what few ingredients were on hand. While there wasn't much chicken, it seemed there was plenty of oil, rice wine, and soy sauce, so the guard used a full cup of each.

It should be noted, however, that at the time, and for several centuries to follow, "one cup" didn't necessarily mean 8 fluid ounces. Such standardized measuring units weren't really adopted until the end of the 19th century, so the "cup" in the recipe title likely refers to whatever vessel the apocryphal prison guard had on hand. Also, while we have no idea how large that 13th-century cup may have been, Taiwan these days uses a liquid measuring unit called the sheng that is approximately ¼ of a U.S. cup.

What goes into 3 cup chicken

Three cup chicken may be a Taiwanese tradition, but that doesn't mean there's any consensus on how it should be made. For starters, while the recipe's name implies that it was originally meant to contain equal amounts of wine, sesame oil, and soy sauce, many modern recipes choose to cut way down on the oil and, in many cases, on the soy sauce, as well. Older ones may have tinkered with the 1:1:1 ratio, as well, since during leaner times excess oil would have been seen as wasteful.

Taiwanese three cup chicken is often made using thighs and drumsticks chopped into bite-sized pieces, bone and all. Cooks in other countries, however, often opt to use whole chicken parts and may even swap out the dark meat for wings. Boneless chicken can also be used (even — gasp! — white meat) since there's no hard and fast rule disqualifying the dish from being three cup chicken just because you don't want a mouthful of broken bone bits.

Other ingredients, too, may vary. Some recipes call for rock sugar, but some use granulated or brown and some cooks skip the sweetener altogether. Seasonings commonly include garlic, ginger, green onions, crushed red pepper, and fresh basil (Thai, for preference), although occasionally you might find a recipe calling for a little something extra such as Chinese black vinegar. Recipes also differ as to whether the sauce is left to cook down or thickened up with cornstarch.

How 3 cup chicken is cooked

Not only do recipes for three cup chicken differ when it comes to the amounts and type of ingredients used, but cooks often seem to disagree on how best to prepare the dish, as well. The traditional method is to use a clay pot, an instrument that some including restaurateur Eddie Huang of "Fresh Off the Boat" fame, insist is de rigueur. Others, however, opt to cook it in a wok, Dutch oven, or plain old pan.

Yet another option, for the modern, gadget-hoarding cook, is to make three cup chicken in an appliance such as a slow cooker or Instant Pot. Using such a method, however, means that your three cups' worth of liquid (even if you don't use an entire 24 ounces of the stuff) won't cook down to the extent that they would in an open pot. This means that you'll wind up with super-saucy chicken, which is great if you have a whole pile of rice to absorb the excess. You may, however, opt to thicken it up with a little cornstarch, since we've already established that in some traditions, at least, this ingredient makes a perfectly acceptable addition to the recipe.

3 cup variant versions

It seems as though chicken is probably the original three cup protein of choice, whether in memory of Wen Tianxiang or simply from force of habit, yet some cooks are so bold as to switch it out for another type of meat or meat substitute. Sliced boneless pork, aka the other white meat, works very well in place of chicken, although pork spare ribs can also be used and may give an eating experience closer to the original three cup chicken made with bone-in chunks of meat.

Venturing a bit further afield into seafood territory, we find three cup squid, shrimp, and mixed seafood dishes. Some three cup recipes even call for the addition of noodles, which is actually a pretty genius idea if you're going to have a lot of sauce that needs soaking up. And yes, as we mentione, meat substitutes can also be used, so of course three cup tofu is a thing. Restaurants may make it with silken tofu, but the firm kind can also be used in this dish.

Where to try 3 cup chicken

Three cup chicken is something you're likely to find at numerous street food vendors as well as restaurants throughout Taiwan, while in the Philippines, it's something you might find at 7-Eleven. In the U.S. your best bet is a Taiwanese or Chinese restaurant, with some of the different establishments offering it including Bamboo House in Rochester, New York; Mandarin House in South Bend, Indiana; Han Dynasty in Philadelphia; and Hop Alley in Denver. Even some restaurants that don't quite fit these categories may offer it, such as Madison, Wisconsin's Nattspil. This college town spot's menu runs to such foodie fare as brie and apple pizza and a fried chicken sandwich with kimchi and black garlic aioli, but it does have a sprinkling of dim sum dishes as well as three cup chicken and three cup tofu.

Even if three cup chicken has yet to become as ubiquitous a menu staple as kung pao chicken or moo shu pork, it seems to be on the rise, trend-wise. Standing in testimony to this is the fact that not only is it considered hipster bistro-worthy (at least in Wisconsin), but it's also included on the rotating menus of two meal delivery services, these being Blue Apron and Marley Spoon. It's also been dished up in UCLA's residential dining halls, although this may owe something to the fact that this university is very popular with Taiwanese students who may appreciate getting a taste of home from time to time.