This once-humble cooking style, unique to Taiwan, is easy to fall in love with.
You can't help but love the food in Taiwan. It's fresh, delicious, and usually served with the utmost care, from the fare offered by street vendors with red plastic stools to the very best five-star hotels with interior design to match that found in any world capital. Dishes from all over China proliferate, and restaurants both Western and Asian to meet every mood and style are seeking your patronage.
As a food writer, I try to identify the dishes that can epitomize a particular place, and for me one of those dishes in Taiwan is definitely sanbei cooking. Literally translated, the term means "three cups," referring to the three cups of seasoning that form the glorious base to this aromatic dish.
These three cups are equal parts of soy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil, and the dish is also seasoned with old ginger, whole cloves of garlic, black mushroom, chili, and fresh basil. The protein element can be chicken, tofu, duck, fish, rabbit, frog, or squid. All the ingredients work together like an orchestra to create the overall impact of the finished dish, which is traditionally served red hot and sizzling to your table.
I had already been in Taipei for nearly two years when I went for dinner with friends at a spa resort in Xin Beitou that has al fresco dining (a relative rarity in a country where many diners favor indoor, brightly lit, air-conditioned spaces). As there were some vegetarians in our party, we ordered a couple of portions of sanbei tofu. It arrived at our table in clay pots, which the waiter warned us were extremely hot. The lids were removed and the most intoxicating aroma emerged from the serving dishes. They were still sizzling from the heat of the clay, which is heated just prior to being filled from the original cooking vessel. The basil, still bright green from its addition to the dish at the very last minute, was wilting before our eyes.
We eagerly helped ourselves, and I tasted for the first time what was one of the most superb tofu dishes I have ever encountered. This particular restaurant uses tofu enriched with egg, which imparts a creamy tone to the mouth-feel and texture of this sometimes uninspiring foodstuff. It also makes for an extremely attractive yellow color when cut. I have since sampled many versions of sanbei, all of which have been slightly different and every bit as good.
A humble beginning
This dish originated at the start of the last century in the farming communities of Taiwan, where it would be set to cook over a low heat while the family members were at work in the fields. It was also served as temple food around harvest time to celebrate the new crops, and because of the ingredients it is considered to be a health restorative. A dish very similar to sanbei chicken (minus the chili) is given to women here observing the Zuo Yuezi, a one-month period of rest and special diet after childbirth to help in regaining strength for the task of motherhood. The liquids (oil, soy sauce, and rice wine) added near the beginning of the cooking time will by the end have been reduced to a golden caramelized coating, leaving an intense flavor in the finished dish. Apart from the protein element, which is governed by personal preference, economics, and availability, the ingredients are always the same in a classic sanbei dish.
The better the restaurant, the more likely it is that they will use top-quality ingredients, making the resulting dish perfectly balanced. Use a lower quality soy sauce and an overly salty flavor may result. But fancy restaurants, especially those specializing in the cuisine of mainland Chinese provinces, are not the place to look for sanbei dishes. Taiwanese family-style restaurants and street cafes, however, are likely to have a couple of sanbei dishes available, but sometimes you may need to ask for a special order. Chefs who specialize in Taiwanese cuisine will make it on request if the kitchen is not too busy, but some of them wrongly resist adding it to the menu, believing it to be an old-fashioned and perhaps plebeian dish.
To add weight to my research, I asked Chef Tseng Hsiu-pao at the Landis Taipei's superb Chinese restaurant, Tien Hsiang Lo, to prepare a classic sanbei dish for me. He chose to make sanbei duck, and while it cooked he told me about the paramount importance in this style of cooking of selecting the right ingredients. It's easy to err, as Chinese sesame oil, for example, comes in varying and in two different styles, dark and light. Using light oil in this dish would result in the wrong color and flavor, as well as a less authentic finish.
Sesame oil -- there are many sesame oils on the market, but for this dish you need to use a black sesame oil, which is made by crushing hulled and toasted white sesame seeds. Sesame oil is traditionally used in Chinese cooking for its flavor, which is released from the seeds during toasting, and is often drizzled onto dishes just prior to serving. As it has a low burning point, it is not that useful as a frying oil unless mixed with other oils. For sanbei dishes, it imparts a critical flavor component during the cooking. Sesame oil is prized in traditional Chinese medicine for its warming qualities -- one reason why farm workers have traditionally regarded sanbei dishes as particularly healthful.
Soy sauce -- a good-quality, naturally brewed soy sauce is a fundamental element of many Chinese dishes. Traditionally the sauce was made by fermenting soy beans and roasted wheat for months before bottling for use. Quick-fix methods are now employed, but the only way to replicate the flavor gained by the lengthy fermentation process is to use hydrolized vegetable proteins, which are high in natural monosodium glutamates (MSG) and artificial coloring. The Japanese, who took the idea for soy sauce from the Chinese about a thousand years ago, make two world-renowned sauces -- Shoyu and Tamari -- which are both naturally brewed and can be used in this dish. Tamari is produced without wheat and is therefore good for those who are wheat intolerant. Avoiding inexpensive soy sauces in favour of a well-known brand is advisable here. Light soy sauce is not suitable, as it is too salty; instead go for a dark soy sauce that will have a full flavor and contribute a red-brown color to the finished dish. (The rule of thumb in Chinese cookery is that light soy is used for dipping sauces and dark soy for cooking).
Rice wine -- a crucial ingredient in Taiwanese cooking and perceived as an ingredient like Worcestershire sauce rather than a drink (although some enjoy this as a beverage). It's used in copious amounts in night-market teppanyaki stalls. Chef Tseng uses mijiu tou wine, as he says it imparts a most fragrant element to the dish that other grades of rice wine lack.
Basil -- "nine-story tower" is the translation of the local name given to the heady aromatic variety of basil found in Taiwan. This is much stronger than the sweet basil found in Italy and prized in cooking throughout Europe. The basil here has a strong smell and flavor, often likened to clove or aniseed. It is an essential ingredient in sanbei cooking, adding color and a distinctive flavor that I will always associate with Taipei. Its curious name comes from the pale purple flower that forms at the tip and that can look a little like a swaying tower. I was surprised to learn that this flat-leaf variety of basil with its big flavor is fairly new to Taiwan, introduced only in the 1960s. Easy to grow, it is a delicious addition to the cuisine and its popularity is evident in the many local recipes (like wok-fried clams) that depend on it to pack a punch.
Dried black mushrooms -- readily available here and preferred by many chefs even though fresh mushrooms are easily found here. The flavor and texture of the dried mushrooms, once re-hydrated, explains all. The process of drying intensifies the flavor compounds and texture so that when re-hydrated (simply by pouring boiling water over them and leaving for 20 minutes), they add a rich new dimension to any dish. In Italian cuisine, dried porcini mushrooms are prized in much the same way.
Old ginger -- you can buy two types of fresh ginger root here: young or old. Young ginger is normally used, finely grated with soy sauce and vinegar, as a dipping sauce for dumplings, but old ginger is used in cooked dishes. In sanbei dishes, the ginger is sliced lengthways across the widest parts and left in whole pieces like potato chips.
Add large red chilies -- for spiciness and color -- and a large handful of small peeled garlic cloves and the ingredients are assembled. No longer cooked for the whole day, sanbei food still takes far longer than the average restaurant dish, so be prepared for a bit of a wait. Although chicken is the most popular version of this dish, Chef Tseng chose to prepare sanbei duck for me. Cooked for 40 minutes, the meat was tender and the sauce rich and dark from the duck gravy mixing with the three cups. It was a dish to remember, cooked by one of the most talented and creative Chinese chefs I have encountered in Taipei. The dish had the perfect balance of its classic Asian ingredients and it is one that I shall definitely try to duplicate at home.