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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
- 2 whole chicken breasts, skinned, boned and cut in half
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon dry sherry
- 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
- 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)
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.