The ABCs of Michigan almond boneless chicken

Almond boneless chicken, or ABC, is a favorite Chinese American dish in Michigan. / Photo by Liza Lagman Sperl via Flickr Creative commons

Almond boneless chicken, or ABC, is a favorite Chinese American dish in Michigan. / Photo by Liza Lagman Sperl via Flickr Creative Commons

The acronym ABC usually stands for “American-born Chinese.” But if it’s shorthand for your favorite Chinese dish, chances are you’re from Michigan.

“It’s a Michigan thing,” restaurant owner Margaret Yee says about almond boneless chicken, #7 on her menu at Kim’s in Troy, and the restaurant’s best-selling item.

Far from one of the symbolic dishes eaten at Chinese New Year, which begins Jan. 31, almond boneless chicken – ABC to Michigan natives — is one of those classic Chinese-American dishes that exists in a genre all its own. Chicken breast fillets are battered and deep fried, then covered in a glossy brown gravy often studded with vegetables such as water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, celery and mushrooms. They’re topped with scallions and sliced almonds and served on a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce – which some say is there to soak up the grease. Not exactly gourmet fare. But the dish inspires a passion in Michiganders usually reserved for sour cherry pie or the Wolverines.

Kim's restaurant first opened in Detroit in the late 1950s. Today it is located in Troy, Mich. Almond boneless chicken is the menu's #7. / Photo courtesy of Margaret Yee

Kim’s restaurant first opened in Detroit in the late 1950s. Today it is located in Troy, Mich. Almond boneless chicken is the menu’s #7. / Photo courtesy of Margaret Yee

“It’s not good for you, but it’s so delicious,” says Susie Mui-Shonk, who grew up in Ferndale, just north of Detroit. Mui-Shonk moved to San Francisco after graduating from Michigan State University (Spartans, not Wolverines), only to discover that she had left almond boneless chicken behind.

“I would suss the whole thing out,” she says, recalling the way she would phone different San Francisco restaurants and grill them, ingredient by ingredient, on what was in the dish that they called almond chicken. “You’ll ask them, ‘Is the chicken white meat?’ and they’ll say, ‘Sure it is.’ Then you go there and it’s, like, thigh meat,” she says. “In the 20-something years I’ve lived here, I don’t even try anymore.”

Like so many dishes, ABC’s provenance is unclear. Most of the state’s Chinese immigrants came from Guangdong province, also known as Canton. They settled in and around Detroit in the mid-1900s, and started laundries and restaurants. And in the restaurants, says Yee, they pooled their family recipes and what they’d learned about Americans to concoct almond boneless chicken.

“The old, old Chinese restaurants that started in the ’60s, they were all from the same village,” says Yee, whose grandfather came to the United States in the early 1900s as an indentured servant to work on the Pacific Railroad. After roaming the states, she says, he settled in Michigan, where he bought Kim’s. “There was a lot of kinship in the Chinese community and they just decided American people would like that. They like boneless fried chicken, why wouldn’t they like boneless almond chicken?”

Chinese-American food expert Andrew Coe says that the story may not be far from the truth, and that the dish, also known as war su gai, likely had its origins in some familiar Chinese dish.

“I think this is a real Cantonese preparation,” says Coe, author of “Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States.” “Diners in one region of the U.S. gravitate to one dish or another. In Minnesota, they got into chow mein. For Michigan and also Canada, the boneless almond chicken became really big.”

ABC on the menu at Golden Wheel restaurant in Ferndale, Mich. / screenshot via the restaurant's website

ABC on the menu at Golden Wheel restaurant in Ferndale, Mich. / screenshot via the restaurant’s website

As iconic as it is, though, apparently not everyone in Michigan has heard of – let alone tasted – almond boneless chicken. Andrew Stover, a Washington, D.C., sommelier who grew up in Grand Rapids, says he’s never even seen it on a menu.

“But I don’t remember going to Chinese restaurants,” he says. “Detroit is way more multicultural than west Michigan. Maybe I’m just missing out.”

And though Michiganders may be the most passionate devotees of almond boneless chicken, it is not solely “a Michigan thing.” Reports of almond boneless chicken nearly identical to the Michigan preparation have surfaced from Washington state to Florida, with scattered sightings in spots such as Idaho, Kentucky, Georgia and North Carolina. Comments logged on a story last year in Zester Daily note that in Seattle it is called “Chinese almond fried chicken,” and goes by the acronym “AFC.” In North Carolina, it’s “chicken Cantonese.” In Georgia, noted one commenter, it is rarely served on a bed of lettuce and the gravy has no vegetables.

Coe says it’s possible the dish migrated from place to place. But the bigger factor, he suggests, is that Chinese food in these places simply hasn’t evolved. American-style Chinese food such as chop suey, chow mein and egg foo young began in New York, he says, then headed west, forming the basic Chinese restaurant menu throughout the country. In many of the places it landed, the food has stayed the same.

“They’re kind of frozen in time,” he says. “It’s not so much that the food moves, it’s that it isn’t changing in those ways. You’re seeing a variant from the old days.”

Regardless of who else claims it, to many Michiganders almond boneless chicken is synonymous with home.

“I always knew almond boneless chicken wasn’t real Chinese food,” Mui-Shonk says. “It’s just the food we grew up with. … It’s really a part of the culture.”

 

 

Makes 4 servings

Almond Boneless Chicken, Michigan style

Almond boneless chicken, or ABC, is a hometown favorite in Michigan's old-style Chinese restaurants. Essentially boneless Southern fried chicken topped with brown gravy and almonds, it recalls the chop suey era of Chinese food in America. This recipe is adapted from one originally published in the Detroit Free Press in 1979.

Ingredients

  • 2 whole chicken breasts, skinned, boned and cut in half
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon dry sherry

  • Sauce

  • 4 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 3 cups chicken broth
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped mushrooms
  • 1 medium celery stalk, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup canned bamboo shoots, drained and coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 cup canned sliced water chestnuts, drained
  • 3 tablespoons chicken fat or unsalted butter
  • 2 teaspoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon oyster sauce
  • 3 tablespoons chicken bouillon granules

  • Batter

  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 tablespoon water

  • Oil for deep-frying

  • For Serving

  • 1 cup shredded lettuce
  • 1/3 cup toasted, slivered almonds
  • 1 green onion, finely chopped (green and white parts)

Instructions

Sprinkle chicken with salt and sherry and marinate for 15 minutes.

While chicken is marinating, prepare the sauce. In a medium saucepan, mix together the cornstarch and water until smooth. Gradually mix in the chicken broth, vegetables, chicken fat or butter, soy sauce, oyster sauce and bouillon granules. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. Let boil for 1 minute, then remove from the heat and keep warm.

To prepare batter: Whisk together the cornstarch, flour and baking powder. Add the egg and water and beat until smooth. Coat each piece of chicken with the batter.

Heat a wok or large skillet and add oil to a depth of 1/2 inch; heat to 375 degrees. When hot, fry the coated chicken pieces in oil until they are golden, turning once, 5-7 minutes depending on thickness. Remove and drain the chicken on a rack or on paper towels.

Cut the chicken diagonally into strips. Place on a bed of shredded lettuce. Spoon the sauce over the chicken. Sprinkle with almonds and green onion and serve.

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11 Responses to The ABCs of Michigan almond boneless chicken

  1. Helen Free January 30, 2014 at 9:23 pm #

    This took me back to the mid 60′s when, once every couple of months, my dad would stop at China Sea in Suitland, Maryland and bring home chow mein, egg foo young and egg rolls to 6 kids and my mom who must have loved a night off from cooking. If a version of ABC was on the menu, we never knew about it.

    Imaging this recipe with a side of the great rice available now thaws time just a little. I will probably forgo the vegetables in the gravy just to get close to the sauce that flavored my egg foo young.

    • Avatar of Michele Kayal
      Michele Kayal January 31, 2014 at 7:05 am #

      Helen, this is indeed an old Chinese-American dish from the chop suey days. These places are vanishing, something documented in Andrew Coe’s book (which I haven’t read, but want to read.) Also, strangely enough my husband remembers this dish. He grew up in Seattle where they call it AFC (almond fried chicken.) When I asked him if he’d ever had it he was explosive with enthusiasm. “But it wasn’t, you know, it’s not CHINESE food,” he said.

    • Avatar of Bonny Wolf
      Bonny Wolf February 4, 2014 at 9:46 am #

      Helen — My mother used to make egg foo yung all the time. I’ll post the recipe sometime soon.

  2. Tina Caputo January 31, 2014 at 10:12 pm #

    Thanks for spreading the ABC love — just looking at that photo makes me drool.

    • Avatar of Michele Kayal
      Michele Kayal February 1, 2014 at 8:35 am #

      Tina, thanks for your excellent story in Zester. I must sometime try this mysteriously alluring dish!

  3. marc February 1, 2014 at 11:58 am #

    I moved to Scotland 15 years ago. Ive been looking pinning for abc for all this time. Parents retired to Florida and i haven’t seen it there either. Only place is Michigan! I’m hoping i can get my local Chinese restaurant to make it!!! :)

  4. Amy Nevel February 3, 2014 at 9:40 pm #

    I had no idea that you could only get ABC in MI until a few years ago. I just thought I wasn’t going to the same kinds of Chinese restaurants here in DC I did as a kid (my Mom’s favorite was always chow mein). It was my elementary school friend, Dan, who set me straight so the next time I was back in MI I stopped at the Oceania Inn in Rochester Hills, MI and again ordered my old favorite. It tasted exactly how I remembered it.

  5. Catherine February 23, 2014 at 2:36 am #

    Michigan is not the only State where this dish was so dearly cherished. Ohio, Toledo to be exact had multiple places that served ABC. Almond boneless chicken. The most famous was “Yee’s Garden in west Toledo. Yee’s closed in the 90′s I believe. I had found the receipe back in 2003 but had since lost it. I know the original had almond paste or powder in it to be included in the batter and the gravy was much thicker and darker. It was so delicious. I am continuing to look for a similar receipe and so far this one you have published is about the closest. For now I will try this receipe but must continue for that original receipe!

  6. Kristine May 16, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

    I grew up in Seattle and this was a common dish all over the NW. WA, OR and ID. It was simply called “Almond Chicken” or on the rare occasion there is the non-breaded version on the menu it would be called “Almond Fried Chicken”
    I’ve lived all over the country as an adult and haven’t found anything remotely close anywhere else. With the exception of one place in Chicago. In the NW we don’t add any veggies to the dish other than lettuce. Nothing healthy to get in the way. I’m now in New England and would give my right leg to find a place that served Almond Chicken.

    • Rachael June 28, 2014 at 8:58 pm #

      Yes, Kristine! They even have it in Ocean Shores, WA! I’m trying out this recipe as we speak. I’ll post later with the results :)

  7. Michelle August 9, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

    I have been enjoying ABC since I was a little kid in the 80′s. It’s one of my favorite dishes as well as some of my other family members. It’s served at almost every Chinese restaurant here in Toledo, Ohio. Also, we have a fast food Chinese place here called “magic wok” that serves it. I have lived all over the USA as a traveling health professional and have yet to find this dish other then in Southeastern Michigan or Northwestern Ohio. So, it will be nice to be able to make this when I’m not in my hometown area. Thanks for the delicious recipe!! I hope it turns out as good as some of my favorite restaurants!

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