Story and photos by Lindsay Sterling
Ling-wen Tsai was a young nurse in Taiwan, dreaming of doing what she really wanted to do: become an artist. She decided to pursue her dream and go to art school in the United States. In time, Ling-wen’s dream came true. She became a professional artist and art professor at Maine College of Art in Portland. But there was one small problem.
She had never learned how to cook her favorite food from home, called san bei ji (in English: three-cups chicken), and she missed it. She couldn’t find a Taiwanese restaurant in Portland, and the only Taiwanese-owned restaurant she found in Boston served mostly Chinese food. “I asked my mom how to cook it,” Ling-wen went on, “She said: ‘three-cups chicken: one cup sesame, one cup chicken, one cup soy sauce.’ I tried it, and it tasted awful.”
Enter the love of her life, Nathan Kolosko, a guitarist and composer from Buffalo, New York. He had worked as a line cook and was passionate about cooking. Really passionate. I mean: he grows his own hydroponic kale in his living room. Cooking together is something Ling-wen and Nathan love to do. “We live in our aprons,” she said, “We cook. We eat. We go out for ingredients.” I joined them one morning in February in their tiny apartment kitchen in the Old Port. She admired Nathan’s joy for cooking, calling him a natural. He responded: “She is a great sous chef.”
Over the last decade the two traveled to Taiwan many times to visit her family. Nathan loved trekking along windy mountain roads to visit oolong tea villages, and working on cracking the culinary code for san bei ji. They ordered it in various restaurants in Tianan, a region she described as “the food capital of Taiwan,” where “the home-cooking restaurants downtown are affordable and delicious as opposed to fancy and expensive.” After ten years of trial and error cooking, re-tasting san bei ji in Taiwan, and one final visit to a home-cooking restaurant run by Ling-wen’s mother’s friend, Nathan finally mastered the dish. “It’s all there now,” he said.
The dish is made by cooking chicken thighs in a wok with soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, Taiwanese fermented chili-bean paste, ginger root (shaved on a mandolin), scallions, and Thai basil leaves. The dish is served family style with short grain rice and a vegetable. The day I was there he made bok choy sautéed in garlic and sesame oil.
“It came down to getting and handling the meat right,” He said. You cut chicken thighs with a cleaver so that you have pieces of chicken that are about 1 ½ inch thick that still have skin and bone, which together give the sauce traditional flavor. “Really fresh ginger is also important.” In Maine, he keeps an eye out for new shipments of ginger at Hong Kong Market and Sun Market. And finally, “Three cups is not the proportion.” Ling-wen and he joked that maybe “three-cups chicken” was a red herring, concocted by chefs to keep the recipe a secret.
Alas, here in Portland Ling-wen can continue be the artist she dreamed of being and eat her favorite Taiwanese chicken, too. She and Nathan will be cooking san bei ji this Chinese New Year on February 19th. Thanks to Nathan’s extraordinary detective work, you can too.