The connection between 3-Cup Chicken and the great works of Marcel Proust may not be immediately apparent to your average Chinese food lover. But for Chiuho Duval, it is obvious. Like Proust with his cookie-inspired time-travel, Chiuho is immediately transported through vivid memories to her childhood in Taiwan whenever she smells 3-Cup Chicken cooking.
Proust describes his sweet experience this way: “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.” There are no crumbs or shuddering in Chiuho’s experience, but the rich, salty, pungent 3-Cup Chicken aroma does take her back to the sunlit corner patio of her childhood home. There she could sit for hours, gaze at the sky and visit with her mother. Conversation invariably turned to food. “What’s for dinner?” might just be Chiuho’s all-time favorite question.
Modern 3-Cup Chicken is considered Taiwanese, though the original recipe comes from the Jiangxi province of southern China. The sauce consists of equal parts sesame oil, rice wine, and soy sauce (one cup of each). The chicken is cooked together with the sauce in a pot over very high heat, that is later decreased to a low flame as the sauce reduces. The intensely fragrant flavor of the sauce coalesces during this reduction process and fills the air with its transporting awesomeness. The dish is ready when the sauce is almost completely reduced and caramelized.
The magic of the sauce has almost as many interpretations as it has cooks who love to make it. A Single Pebble serves Chiuho’s mother’s recipe which adds garlic, ginger, sugar, and basil to the original. Other versions may include sherry, red chilies, scallions, spinach, mushrooms, or carrots. On an island whose national cuisine reflects influences from its neighbors, immigrants, and indigenous people, this kind of elaboration is fairly typical.
Culinary influences in Taiwan include Sichuan, Guangdong, Beijing, Shanghai, and Japan. After World War II, even the U.S. soldiers stationed in the northern part of the island had some influence on its famously eclectic cuisine. As a kid, Chiuho did not differentiate among the many cooking styles present in her home town of Changwha. She’d traipse from noodle shop to dim sum to BBQ to steak house to French toast in her nascent foodie adventure. To her, all of it was Taiwanese food; all of it good.
You can taste this yourself at the restaurant in the 3-Cup Chicken (or 3-Cup Tofu, if you prefer).
You may even find yourself transported.