Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Three Cup Chicken 三杯鸡

I know I talked about growing your own herbs, but it's kind of funny because I really only started to learn about herbs after I moved to London.

In Singaporean food, there are a lot of spices involved, but not really herbs. Curry leaves, pandan leaves, banana leaves are used to impart fragrance, but they aren't really herbs are they? In Chinese food, especially, you don't really need anything besides coriander and spring onions. That said, they're used a lot, and go into everything from soups to stir-fries.

But once in a while, you do get the odd herb that's not one of the aforementioned two. Introducing... the Thai Basil!

It has a slight purple-ish tinge to its much tougher stalks.

It's kind of different from the sweet basil that's more commonly used here, because it has a strong anise-like scents that adds a very different dimension to dishes, and also, it holds us a lot better in cooked dishes, unlike sweet basil, which is best eaten raw I feel.

Thai Basil is an important part of Thai dishes (duh) but also in this less known Chinese chicken stirfry reminiscent of the more famous Kung Pow Chicken, called Three Cup Chicken. Three Cup because the original recipe called for 1 cup of each of these 3 Chinese pantry essentials: sesame oil, Chinese rice wine, and soy sauce.

But I guess it's a really small cup, (haha see Chinese tea cups) because you definitely do not need a cup of each. Or maybe because Half Cup Chicken just doesn't have the same ring to it. Nonetheless, what's more important is that you need to keep them in the same ratios, how easy is that to remember!

Three Cup Chicken 三杯鸡
serves 2
2 chicken legs (about 500g), deboned and chopped into small pieces
(it's important to keep them in small pieces, so they all get coated in the sauce, because they aren't marinated in seasonings like other chicken dishes e.g. sesame oil chicken 麻油鸡, and will turn out bland otherwise.)
6 cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
6 thin slices of ginger
2 tbsp sesame oil (traditionally black sesame oil, which has an even stronger aroma)
2 tbsp Chinese rice wine (Shaoxing Hua Diao Jiu, do not replace with cheap cooking wine!)
2 tbsp soy sauce (naturally fermented and aged)
2 tbsp blackstrap molasses (or you can use brown/rock sugar, but I like using molasses when I cook with soy sauce)
handful of Thai basil leaves
3-4 dried red chillies

For velveting the chicken (optional)
1 egg white, beaten but not frothy
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 tbsp Chinese rice wine

1. (optional) 20 min before you are ready to cook, marinate the chicken in the velveting mixture. 20 min later, parboil the chicken in simmering water till they turn white on the surface, but are not yet cooked. Drain and set aside.
(I'm in the midst of my Chinese stir-fry secrets experiments. You can try the baking soda /poaching in oil methods too and let me know! )
2. Heat work/pan on high heat and add the sesame oil.
3. Add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry for 2 minutes till fragrant.

yes they are left whole! If you haven't yet realised, this dish is not shy on flavour!

4. Add the dried chillies and chicken pieces and stir-fry for another few minutes.
Keep stirring or you'll burn your food! This whole dish is cooked on high heat, so the meat is nicely seared and caramelised!
5. Add the other sauce ingredients, and let it simmer, covered for another 4-5 min, till there's sticky and no longer wet.
6. Add the Thai basil leaves and then immediately remove from the heat. They will wilt in the residual heat.

This dish is traditionally cooked in a claypot, so you just serve it in the claypot. I don't have one the right size, so oh well, dish out and garnish with an extra sprig of fresh Thai basil and serve with rice.

This is great humble food, simple yet bursting with flavour. The sweet salty caramelised chicken has a sticky coating of sauce (it's a dry dish, you aren't supposed to be left with a pool of gravy), amped up with the kick from the ginger and whole garlic cloves and chillies, and perfumed with that anise scent from the Thai Basil, and one of my favourite smells in the world--sesame oil! If you can;t find Thai Basil, I guess you can use normal sweet basil, it will still be good, but it will not be Three Cup Chicken.


  1. Indeed simple yet so flavorful! I love it!

  2. This sounds amazing. Flavor and I love chicken.

  3. I want to try this! I have a craving for thai food now!

  4. thanks! (: shuqi this is chinese not thai!!

  5. That crispy chicken looks delicious, nice tea cups. Thanks for sharing with Hearth and Soul Blog hop.

  6. Thanks for sharing it with Hearth and Soul hop :) I really like this dish and i really like Basil specially thai basil :)

  7. Hi Shu Hun,
    Your Three Cup Chicken would just be delicious. Congratulations again on your feature this week! Thank you so much for sharing with Full Plate Thursday and hope to see you next week!

  8. I'm glad you posted this, because my Thai Basil plant has been tragically neglected lately, mainly through lack of ideas for its use.

  9. Thanks for your kind words on the Food Hound!! I LOVE Thai basil! Such a unique flavor!!

  10. thanks (:

    wow claudia, trust you to grow oriental herbs like thai basil (:

  11. The chicken-velveting method sounds really interesting! Must-try!

  12. I posted this too. You're indeed versatile when it comes to cooking. Your blog is interesting!

  13. Very tasty and simple. Love Thai basil.

  14. Just made it, turned out REALLY good

  15. Thanks!

    @you'll thank me later: i'm glad it turned out really good for you (: i'm always very happy when people really try out the recipes! (: (:

  16. Aww, this looks wonderful! I can imagine the flavors ... And I love Thai basil, the more the merrier! :D