In Taiwan, basil can be the star of a dish. Michelle Tchea explains why.
By
Michelle Tchea

27 Oct 2021 - 11:17 AM  UPDATED 27 Oct 2021 - 11:34 AM

If you've been to Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, and experienced one of the vibrant night markets, you would've spotted long queues of hungry locals lining up for regional dishes. Stinky tofu, blood rice cakes and oyster pancakes — all delicious dishes and quite difficult to replicate back home in Australia.

However, there are a few Taiwanese dishes you can recreate and one of those is called three-cup chicken. The recipe is as simple as it sounds. It has three simple ingredients: soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil. These are mixed together to braise chicken. The dish is often served with steamed rice. However, what makes it exceptional is the addition of something uniquely Taiwanese. Before serving three-cup chicken, turn off the heat and throw in a generous handful of basil. Toss quickly before bringing to the table and enjoy. 

Three-cup chicken

Three-cup chicken is probably the most popular dish in Taiwan and every cook has their own recipe. The recipe takes its name from the equal ratio of sesame oil, rice wine and soy sauce used in the dish, rather than the literal measurements. 

The Taiwanese love basil and use it lavishly in many dishes; it can almost be a dominant vegetable of a dish, like it is in the three-cup chicken dish. If you don't have chicken, you can use clams instead, or if you only have pork mince on hand, you can quickly stir fry it with shallots before liberally throwing in the basil.

While Europeans and Australians use basil sparingly for some recipes (excluding pesto, which is all about the herb), it's still served gingerly when tossed through pasta dishes. Taiwanese people, on the other hand, want that basil punch in nearly every dish it's in.

Basil is used to garnish dishes, like pasta, in Europe.

The variety of basil used and loved in Taiwan is a special one and loosely translates as nine-pagoda basil, because it grows like the towering pagodas you see in many Asian gardens. The sturdy structure has an intense flavour; it's spicy and sharp, unlike the sweeter European variety. You would never eat nine-pagoda basil raw in Taiwan because of its intensity: the herb requires heat to bring it down to a tolerable and digestible level. 

"The Taiwanese love basil and use it lavishly in many dishes. Indeed, it can almost be the dominant vegetable."

Other nine-pagoda basil recipes in Taiwan include stir-fry eggplant in which a large handful of basil finishes the dish. However, I love eggplant stew more, where you simmer the eggplant slowly in a clay pot, almost like a confit, and serve it with a generous handful of basil. Much like European basil, Taiwanese basil can also be finely chopped and stirred into beaten eggs for a quick and easy side dish without breaking a sweat. 

Get your hands around Adam Liaw's Taiwanese popcorn chicken.

 

Frying basil leaves in oil makes for another tasty treat. Once fried, pair them with Taiwanese popcorn chicken. Crispy bite-sized pieces of chicken nuggets in a crunchy batter work very well with crispy basil leaves. I highly recommend serving this snack with a tall pint of beer. 

In Vietnam, basil is served with pho. In Thai cuisine, soups and stir-fries also include Thai basil to really intensify the dish. It really is hard to argue with a herb that seemingly works so well as the main event and not just a modest garnish for colour, don't you think? 

 

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