A Taste of Taiwan
July 24, 2015
Grant Cornett for The New York Times. Food stylist: Maggie Ruggiero. Prop stylist: Theo Vamvounakis.
The chicken is tender and velvety, a little crisp at its edges, surrounded by coins of ginger and cloves of garlic. The sauce is dark and pungent — soy sauce cut through with aged rice wine and studded with bits of scallion, perfect for ladling onto rice. There is a sweetness in there as well, sugar and sesame against the salt of the soy, with a faint hit of peppery fire. A handful or two of Thai basil added at the end imparts a floral punch.
The dish is called three-cup chicken, and it makes for a simple and excellent dinner that you can prepare in well under an hour.
It is Taiwanese in origin, which is to say it is cooked across the island and wherever Taiwanese have landed after they've left. But like much Taiwanese cooking, the dish has roots in China. The history of three-cup chicken is often traced back to the 13th century, to the execution of the Song dynasty hero Wen Tianxiang. A guard is said to have made the dish for Wen out of the prison's limited resources on his final night of life, some scant bits of chicken slowly braised in oil , soy sauce, rice wine. One cup of each.
“It's a seminal dish,” Eddie Huang, the jocular restaurateur whose Taiwanese-American childhood in Orlando, Fla., is the subject of the ABC television comedy “Fresh Off the Boat,” told me when I called him. “You'll be judged on it.” But its origin story, Huang cautioned, is a dangerous one. Cooking three-cup chicken with an equal ratio of oil and soy and rice wine leads to a greasy, unappetizing mess. “If you actually cook it that way, you'll be in trouble,” he said. “The point is to draw the sugar out of all the ingredients using a little sesame oil, but not a lot.”
“這道菜影響深遠，”愛開玩笑的餐廳老闆黃頤銘(Eddie Huang)在我給他打電話時說道。這位台裔美國人在佛羅里達州奧蘭多市度過童年，美國廣播公司的情景喜劇《初來乍到》(Fresh Off the Boat)曾把這段經歷作為故事藍本。“人們會用這道菜來評判你。”但原始的做法，黃頤銘提醒說，有點“危險”。用等比例的油、醬油和米酒烹製三杯雞，會導致油膩，讓人難以下嚥。“如果你實際上真的這麼製作三杯雞，會陷入麻煩，”他說。“關鍵在於，用一點香油將糖的味道從所有食材中提出來，不過不要太多。”
Ed Schoenfeld, who owns the RedFarm restaurants in New York and served three-cup chicken at his Auntie Yuan restaurant in the early 1980s, agreed. “Here's my hit on that,” he said. “I'm old enough that I learned to cook from chefs who learned to cook before the communist revolution in China. And I know that in those days, there was no one cooking food with an inch of oil on top of the dish. It might make you seem hip and groovy. But it's lazy. It's not right.”
在紐約掌管RedFarm餐廳的艾德·舍恩菲爾德(Ed Schoenfeld)20世紀80年代早期在他的Auntie Yuan餐館曾烹製三杯雞，他也同意這種說法。“關於這道菜，我的發現是，”他說，“我歲數比較大了，教我廚藝的廚師在中國共產主義革命前就學會瞭如何烹飪。據我所知，那時候沒有人在三杯雞上澆一層油。這可能會使你顯得入時，不過也顯得太懶。不怎麼對。”
Ask 30 people how to make three-cup chicken, and you'll receive 30 different recipes. Some cooks fry the chicken before braising it; some use more oil, less wine, different blends of soy sauce. (Schoenfeld likes Healthy Boy soy sauce , particularly the mushroom-infused variety.) Others increase the spiciness or lose it entirely, use rock sugar or granulated, light brown or none at all. Debates rage over how thick the sauce should be, over what parts of the chicken to use.
Huang insisted that a clay pot is essential. “You don't want to overheat the sesame oil in a wok and have it go bitter,” he said. But careful experimentation with woks and Dutch ovens suggests that a clay pot is not strictly necessary . Indeed, Angel Wong, a Taiwanese-American cook in Seattle whose YouTube channel, Angel Wong's Kitchen, is devoted to explorations of her grandmother's Taiwanese recipes, said she has never used one. “Honestly, who has a clay pot these days?” she said. “I feel that you get a better sear from the wok. It's just a presentation thing.”
黃頤銘堅持說，起碼要用砂鍋。“你不想讓香油在炒菜鍋中過熱，以致變苦，”他說。但是，如果炒鍋和荷蘭鑄鐵鍋(Dutch ovens )上認真嘗試後，可以發現砂鍋並不是嚴格必需的。事實上，出生在西雅圖、在YouTube上擁有“安琪·王的廚房”(Angel Wong's Kitchen，專為發掘台灣奶奶們的食譜打造）的台灣裔美國人安琪·王(Angel Wong)說，她從沒用過砂鍋。“坦白說，這年頭誰用砂鍋呢，”她說。“我覺得在炒鍋中受熱更好。這些都只不過是盛放上的事。”
For others, using bone-in chicken is a must — and always dark meat. Cathy Erway, author of the recent cookbook “The Food of Taiwan,” told me she has been eating three-cup chicken on the bone since discovering the dish as a college student at a Taiwanese restaurant in Boston. But American butchers, she said, don't often offer bite-size chunks of bone-in chicken. “If you can find wings and separate them, that'll work,” she said . “You could use whole legs.”
有些人一定要用帶骨頭的雞肉，而且是深色肉（主要為雞腿肉——譯註）。最近出版了美食圖書《台灣美食》(The Food of Taiwan) 的韋凱琳(Cathy Erway)對我說，她上大學時在波士頓一家台灣餐館發現了三杯雞，自那以後，吃的三杯雞都是帶骨頭的。不過她說，美國的肉商不見得每次都會提供小塊的帶骨雞肉。“如果你能找到雞翅，把它們切塊，那就可以，”她說。“也可以用整根雞腿。”
Other families use whole thighs. Mine has done well with those and, in keeping with the traditions of takeout Chinese food for decades in America, with chunks of boneless, skinless thighs as well.
As for the Thai basil, more deeply anise-flavored than the sort found most commonly at markets — it, too, is not compulsory. “Use what you can find,” Erway said. “It's basil!”
Over the course of the few weeks I spent talking to people about three-cup chicken, I cooked it again and again, making tweaks along the way. What follows is a recipe that is a result of that process, a starting point for all those who wish to make the dish their own.
A few tablespoons of sesame oil are used to slowly sauté the garlic, ginger and scallions in a wok or clay pot, and then to lightly brown the chicken. A tablespoon of unrefined sugar joins the aromatics, along with a spray of chili flakes, and then a mixture of rice wine and soy. The braise bubbles away for 20 minutes or so, infusing the chicken with an incredible depth of flavor, reducing into something that is more than a glaze, less than a sauce.
Cooking is jazz, some say. Flavors are worked like chords, ideas are built out of them, making melodies that can be returned to again and again. Three-cup chicken is an ideal basis for that sort of kitchen composition. Just keep the sesame oil in a minor key.