Food History

Add 3 Bottles to Your Pantry For Infinite Stir-Fries, Braises & Soups

January  1, 2018

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.

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"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.)

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Top Comment:
“Love all the other uses for 3-cup sauce here. Happy New Year, Sarah! ”
— Alexandra S.

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.

The makings of three-cup tofu and ramen. Photo by Bobbi Lin

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.

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.

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I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


AntoniaJames January 2, 2018
I've made the Taiwanese tofu and ramen recipe featured above twice in the past few weeks - I add a finely chopped shallot, and strain the sauce after simmering; also, I blanch Chinese greens, broccoli, etc. first in the same water used for the noodles. I can get Sun ramen (David Chang's fresh noodle of choice, I recently learned) as well as super fresh tofu at the Korean grocery not far from here (Koreana Plaza), so that recipe and riffs on it has become an instant favorite.

In fact, when I can replenish my supply of ginger (I made a double batch of XO sauce over the weekend), I plan to simmer a 4X batch of 3 cup sauce, to keep in a mason jar in the fridge.
Incidentally, XO sauce is another great condiment to have on hand . . . . not quite as easy as simmering 3 bottled ingredients with aromatics, but also, not that much harder. Its kitchen ROI can't be beat. NB: Freeze in small portions what won't be used within a week.
Happy New Year, everyone. ;o)
Nancy January 2, 2018
Clever article but could have been matched with a better photo.
I often scan a picture after the headline, to get a better idea if I want to read a whole article. This one was confusing bc the headline talked about 3 bottles, but the photo showed only two.
Unless this was deliberate, to get people to click?
Alexandra S. January 4, 2017
I recently purchased a bottle of gochujang because I keep seeing it pop up in recipes, but I've yet to use it. Love all the other uses for 3-cup sauce here. Happy New Year, Sarah!
nancy E. January 2, 2018
Food52 has a recipe for Gochujang meatballs. They are delicious. You should try them
AntoniaJames January 2, 2018
Make kimchi! ;o)