Weekend Recipe: 3-cup chicken

This is a traditional chinese dish that my wife grew up eating in Taiwan. For some reason, she never told me about it, until she saw an article with a recipe in the NY Times. Of course, I can’t leave recipes alone; I always put my own spin on it. And the recipe in the article had some (in my opinion) glaring problems. For example, it called for cooking with sesame oil. Sesame oil is a seasoning, not a cooking oil. It’s got a very strong flavor, and it burns at stir-fry temperature, which makes any dish cooked in it taste absolutely awful. You cook in neutral oils with high smoke points, like peanut, canola, or soybean; and then you add a drop of sesame as part of the sauce, so that it’s moderated and doesn’t burn. Anyway, below is my version of the dish.

  • 2 pounds of chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces.
  • About 8 large cloves of garlic, thickly sliced.
  • About a 1-inch section of fresh ginger, cut into disks.
  • 5 whole dried szechuan chili peppers (or more, if you like those lovely things!)
  • A good bunch of thai basil leaves, removed from the stems, but left whole. (About a cup, if it’s packed pretty tight. Don’t skimp – these are the best part of the dish!)
  • 4 scallions, thinly sliced, whites and greens separated.
  • 1/3 cup soy sauce.
  • 1/4 cup mirin
  • 1/2 cup sake
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch, dissolved in water.
  • 1/4 teaspoon sesame oil (just a drop, for flavor).
  • Enough canola oil (or similarly bland, high-smoke-point cooking oil) to took – a couple of tablespoons at most.
  1. Get your wok smoking hot. Add enough oil to coat the bottom, and swirl it around.
  2. Add in half of the chicken, and cook until it’s nicely browned, then remove it. (It won’t be cooked all the way through yet, don’t worry!)
  3. Repeat with the other half of the chicken.
  4. Make sure there’s enough oil in the bottom of the wok, then toss in the garlic, ginger, chili peppers, and scallion whites. Stir fry them until the garlic starts to get just a little bit golden.
  5. Add the chicken back in, and add the soy, mirin, sake, and sugar. Get it boiling, and keep stirring things around until the chicken is cooked through.
  6. Add the basil and scallions, and keep stirring until the basil wilts, and the whole thing smells of that wonderful thai basic fragrance.
  7. Add the cornstarch and sesame oil, and cook until the sauce starts to thicken.
  8. Remove it from the heat, and serve on a bed of white rice, along with some simple stir-fried vegetables. (I used a batch of beautiful sugar-snap peas, quickly stir fried with just a bit of garlic, and a bit of soy sauce.)

A couple of notes on ingredients:

  • This is a dish where the soy sauce matters. Don’t use cheap generic american soy sauce; that stuff is just saltwater with food coloring. For some things, that’s actually OK. But in this dish, it’s the main flavor of the sauce, so it’s important to use something with a good flavor. Get a good quality chinese soy (I like Pearl River Bridge brand), or a good japanese shoyu.
  • For the sugar, if you’ve got turbinado (or even better, real chinese rock sugar), use that. If not, white sugar is Ok.
  • Definitely try to get thai basil. It’s very different from italian basil – the leaves are thinner (which makes them much easier to eat whole, as you do in this dish), and they’ve got a very different flavor – almost like Italian basic mixed with a bit of anise and a bit of menthol. It’s one of my favorite herbs, and it’s actually gotten pretty easy to find.
  • Szechuan peppers can be hard to find – you pretty much need to go to an Asian grocery. They’re worth it. They’ve got a very distinctive flavor, and I don’t know of any other dried pepper that works in a sauce like them. You don’t actually eat the peppers – the way you cook them, they actually burn a bit – but they bloom their flavor into the oil that you use to cook the rest of the dish, and that totally changes the sauce.

5 thoughts on “Weekend Recipe: 3-cup chicken”

  1. I guess they meant the untoasted sesame oil which has a high smoke point (210c). It’s what usually used for tempura, AFAIK.

    1. Indeed, I’ve got both in my pantry and they behave very differently. Sesame oil (not “toasted sesame oil”) behaves a lot like peanut or sunflower oil in terms of frying.

    1. No, it does not!

      Szechuan chili peppers are a small, dried, red chili pepper. (I think that they’re the dried form of thai bird chilis. These guys: http://spicetrekkers.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/setzchuan-chili.jpg)

      The things you linked are szechuan peppercorns, which are an entirely different thing. They’ve got a peculiar tongue-numbing effect, and an interesting sour peppery flavor. They’re absolutely wonderful, but very different, and definitely not good for this dish!

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