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Come January, there's a lot of talk about upending our pantries and tossing everything. But for an intensely savory and toasty sauce that's also weeknight- (and budget-) friendly, you'll want to keep—or (gasp!) buy—toasted sesame oil, light soy sauce, and rice or Shaoxing wine. Three bottles! That's it.
Oh, but add some garlic, ginger, and basil and you'll be well on your way to three-cup ramen, or tofu, or squash, or broccoli, or—the ultimate in fast and flavorful weeknight cooking—three-cup chicken, a.k.a. sanbeiji, a popular Taiwanese dish with roots in southern China.
As Sam Sifton explains in a June 2015 The New York Times Magazine story, the mythology of three-cup chicken dates back over seven-hundred years, to the execution of Song dynasty hero Wen Tianxiang in the thirteenth century. On the final night of Wen's life, a sympathetic guard made him a dish out of the prison's limited provisions: pieces of chicken braised in sesame oil, soy sauce, and rice wine.
"One cup of each," says Sifton, before going on to explain that, while family recipes in Taiwan vary, few people make sanbeiji according to the 1 cup : 1 cup : 1 cup legend. (For you, that means you can put those bottles you've invested in toward multiple meals.)
Rather than being a set of instructions to be taken literally, the recipe's name "might underscore the fact that most recipes were passed orally in Taiwan, rather than written, until recent generations," Cathy Erway, author of The Food of Taiwan, wrote on The Splendid Table.
Because "if you actually cook it that way,” Taiwanese-American chef Eddie Huang warned Sifton, “you’ll be in trouble" (or, at least, find yourself with a dish greasy and unappetizing). “The point is to draw the sugar out of all the ingredients using a little sesame oil, but not a lot,” advises Huang.
Sifton's recipe calls for 3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil, 1/4 cup light soy sauce, and 1/2 cup rice wine, accordingly. And, as Erway stresses, it's actually "the sheer volume of garlic cloves, thick pieces of ginger, and fresh basil leaves" that gives the dish its signature flavor—though her recipe actually does come closer to the 1:1:1 ratio than does Sifton's, calling for 3/4 cup toasted sesame oil, 1 cup light soy sauce, and 1 cup rice wine.
And it's not just chicken that can handle the three-cup treatment. Try the three-cup flavor combination as the base of a soup, a braise, or a stir-fry.
- When Joy Huang | The Cooking of Joy found herself with leftover sauce, she used it as the base of a broth for ramen, a soft-boiled egg, and pan-fried tofu, creating a bowl of soupy noodles that reminds me of a fresher, brighter version of "oriental flavor" Top Ramen (wow, it's about time they change the name...).
- Or, use it to braise deep-fried or frozen-then-thawed tofu (fry the tofu, then add your sauce and simmer until the tofu has swelled with the flavorful liquid) or mushrooms.
- Sear kabocha squash, tempeh, broccoli rabe, or mustard greens, then pour the three-cup sauce over top, bring to a simmer, and finish cooking.
- Use it as the liquid for a pork and eggplant stir-fry or shrimp and bok choy.
- Warm it up and pour it over a fillet of steamed white fish.
- It'd also make a great variation on a marinade for Momofuku's Soy Sauce Eggs
and a good cocktail base.
- A small quantity of three-cup sauce is... three-cup dressing! For rotisserie chicken, grated carrots, roasted sweet potatoes, and farro mixed with whatever is in your pantry.
What bottles and cans will you be adding to your pantry in 2018? Tell us in the comments below.
This article was originally published in early 2017. We're bringing it back to ring in 2018.