Weeknight CookingWhat to CookChickenChinese Cooking

A Taiwanese Chicken Dinner That Cuts No Corners—But Is Still Weeknight-Friendly

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In Chinese cooking, meat destined for a braise or a soup is often parboiled first, a step whose goal is to remove impurities before the slow-cooking begins. For anyone accustomed to browning meat before braising, this step may feel unnecessary, something easy to skip and thus save time. Even chef and author Kian Lam Kho, who learned the technique from a "formidable cook" questioned the process, only embracing it fully when he found his sauces to be "muddied with residue" when he skipped it.

Ridding the meat of the scum that foams and collects on the surface of the water during the short pre-cooking—as when simmering meat and bones for a stock—will encourage the final sauce to be clear and visually appealing.

Three Cup Chicken
Three Cup Chicken

Parboiling meat is as common a practice for long three-hour braises, like red-cooked lamb shoulder, as it is for short 30-minute ones, like three cup chicken. The latter caught my attention in Kian’s Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees with its short, accessible ingredient list: ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice wine.

The “three cups” in the title of this traditional Taiwanese dish refer to the original recipe, which, legend holds, called for a cup each of soy sauce, sesame oil, and cooking wine. In this simple version, which yields tender meat and a salty-sweet sauce, the quantities have been pared down and the proportions slightly altered. The end result: Unlike many versions—and there are countless—of three cup chicken, which often call for hot chiles, heaps of garlic, and sugar, this one's flavors are simpler, the final sauce subtly infused with ginger, its slight sweetness a result of the wine reduced during the braising.

Here are a few tips for making it:

Bone-in, skin-on dark meat will lend the best flavor. The recipe calls for cutting thighs and drumsticks into small pieces, but if you’re not comfortable whacking through bones, you can use whole drumsticks or boneless dark meat.

Boiling the chicken *before* browning it ensures a clear, bright sauce in the finished dish. Photos by Alexandra Stafford

Mise en place. Though the sauce is made with few ingredients, the soy sauce and rice wine are divided, added at two separate times in the recipe. It’s best to have everything measured ahead of time, ready to be added when called for.

White rice wine or Shaoxing cooking wine, both easily found at an Asian market, will give the dish a flavor truest to its origins—though I’ve had success using dry sherry in its place. And while Thai basil offers that unique fresh, anise flavor, traditional basil works well, too.

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Three Cup Chicken

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Serves 3 to 4
  • 1 1/2 to 2 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs or legs, each cut into 2 or 3 pieces
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable or grapeseed oil
  • 6 thin slices peeled ginger
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons white rice wine, Shoaxing cooking wine, or dry sherry
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce, divided
  • 1/4 cup toasted sesame oil (untoasted is fine, too)
  • Leaves from 1 medium bunch Thai basil (or standard basil), 2 ounces

Alexandra Stafford is a writer, photographer, and occasional stationery designer based in upstate New York, where she is writing a cookbook. You can read more of her work on her blog.

Sometimes shortcuts don't pay off! What other recipes do you resist the temptation to take the short route in?

Tags: chicken, three-cup chicken