Tasting Taiwan: Three Cup Chicken

Taiwanese food is hard to talk about. 

In the seminal book, A Culinary History of Taipei, the writers say “it’s only natural that the cuisine’s conventions and boundaries should be as fluid and blurry as the island’s status”.

Taiwan, a subtropical island with one of the most densely packed capitals in Asia, is an economic powerhouse but among the more elusive countries in the world.

Diplomatically, it’s a ghost: it has ties with few countries and no status at the UN. Ruled for centuries by China and a half century by Japan, it has been ostensibly independent since the 1950s despite China's claim over it as a rebel territory. But its political status remains uncertain and subject to the whims of American friendship and Chinese aggression.

The country’s often overlooked cuisine bears these marks: of hunters, colonisers, traders, refugees, and a 6,000 year old indigenous population. 

Amid this blend of influences, some hallmarks stand out that make Taiwanese food its own. A “salty-sweet” profile in many dishes. The use of indigenous ingredients from the island’s jungles to the sea. The cuisine has slowly come to global recognition for its richness and diversity.

The Japanese influence persists in the use of mochi, the way vegetables are pickled and seafood is prepared. Americans brought aid but also brought more wheat than the Taiwanese had been used to, leading to formative changes in the diet and the ubiquity of wheat noodles, buns and dumplings that are inseparable from Taiwanese cuisine today.

But perhaps the most substantial culinary influence is still Chinese, especially from mainland China's central to southern provinces and the region of Fujian.

For our first foray into Taiwanese cooking we picked a dish with both Chinese influence and Taiwanese distinction.

Three Cup Chicken is very popular in Taiwan. It is simple to prepare and makes a wholesome meal. The trick is in the balance of the three main elements in the sauce: sesame oil, rice wine, and soy sauce. It’s a balance you would be judged for in Taiwan, but you can make it your own.

The dish bears the Taiwanese hallmark of being salty-sweet and sichuan peppercorns give it a numbing spice. Our Three Cup Chicken kit skews largely to the original and adds some shiitake mushrooms for extra umami.

Three Cup Chicken’s roots date back to the 13th century execution of Wen Tianxing, a Song Dynasty poet and politician.

After being captured by the invading armies of Kublai Khan, Wen refused an offer to switch sides to the Yuan Dynasty and argue to surrender the Song forces. For this refusal, he was tortured, imprisoned for four years, and executed. He remains a hero in both China and Taiwan. While in prison he wrote:

All men are mortal, but my loyalty will illuminate the annals of history forever.

On Wen's final night before execution, a prison guard looked through the limited pantry to prepare what would be Wen’s last meal. He found some bits of chicken that he slow-cooked with oil, soy sauce, and rice wine. Three cups, one of each.