The Murky History Of Almond Boneless Chicken

Sprinkling almonds on ABC
Sprinkling almonds on ABC - Flo Lum/YouTube

In the U.S., most of us have a very narrow vision of Chinese-American food -- in other words, Chinese food you won't find in China. This includes General Tso's chicken, crab rangoon, kung pao chicken, and so on. There's one regional specialty, however, that you've probably never heard of -- that is, unless you grew up in Michigan. Also known as ABC, almond boneless chicken is a staple of Michigan's (specifically Detroit's) American-Chinese food scene. You can also find it in some parts of the metropolitan Midwest, such as Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, but very few other locations.

ABC is a dish of deep-fried boneless, skinless chicken breasts topped with gravy and almonds, served over a bed of iceberg lettuce and white rice. With a healthy helping of brown gravy, which is just as good on mashed potatoes as it is on Chinese cuisine, and crunchy but near flavorless iceberg lettuce, this dish is about as Midwest as a Chinese dish can get. Although ABC has as much a part in Michigan cuisine as Detroit-style pizza, its history is very cloudy, and it's unclear when or how exactly it landed in Michigan. However, a 1917 U.S.-published Chinese cookbook does include a recipe for a chicken dish that uses most of the same ingredients as Midwest-style ABC. Therefore, it's possible that early Chinese-American restaurants in the area simply put their own spin on the dish to serve it as a specialty in the Midwest.

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War Su Gai Became ABC

Almond Boneless Chicken platter
Almond Boneless Chicken platter - Detroit PBS/YouTube

Once in the States, Chinese immigrants had limited employment options, so many opened Chinese restaurants. It's unclear which restauranteur first adapted ABC to best suit Midwestern sensibilities, with the addition of iceberg lettuce and gravy, but we do know it was likely either in Detroit or Columbus (another thing for Michigan and Ohio to start a rivalry over). Originally, the dish went by the name of war su gai, which wasn't descriptive for English-speaking diners, so it took on the name of almond boneless chicken, with ABC as a shorthand to mark takeout boxes.

If you go to a Chinese restaurant outside of Michigan and Ohio and ask about their almond boneless chicken, there's a chance your server will say they have it, but it's unlikely to be the beloved ABC described here. Instead, it might be chicken prepared in a wok alongside almonds or deep fried but served without the brown gravy sauce and iceberg lettuce. To get the real deal, you'll have to make your way to Michigan. Be sure to check out the rest of Detroit's must-try foods while you're there.

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