“You’re talking to a New Yorker who was transplanted to Detroit,” says Brion Wong, a hired gun who developed the opening menu for a high-concept Chinese restaurant in an ailing Middle American Chinatown.
That explains why he had never heard of the one takeout staple Michiganders kept talking about: Almond Boneless Chicken, ABC for short. “I was curious,” Wong says, “and so was the dish. Battered and fried chicken breast covered in toasted almonds and goopy gravy over shredded lettuce.”
Locals take the regional specialty for granted until they move out of state and spend the rest of their lives trying to fill the ABC-shaped void in their lives. The dish may be divorced from its Cantonese roots, but at the ground level it’s just fried chicken and gravy. What’s not to like about that?
Wong’s remix of the hometown favorite revitalizes this anodyne, though comforting, Midwestern Chinese food with a strangely familiar technique. Shredded chicken is glued back together with a sticky, collagen-rich broth. Wong chills the mixture into a terrine, then batters it in portions and plunges them into boiling oil, melting the jellied broth within a breaded casing. “I keep saying it’s a glorified chicken nugget,” says Wong.
But when we read his Almond Boneless Chicken recipe for The Illustrated Wok, our first thought was: Soup dumplings! We asked Wong if soup dumplings, which conceal hunks of jellied broth inside their wrappers, were an apt comparison. “That’s kind of where I got the idea,” he admits.
THE CLEAVER QUARTERLY So what happens when the jellied stock hits the deep fryer?
BRION WONG First of all, the jellied stock is compressed within a starch-dipped terrine. That batter creates a seal. All the steam explodes out of the batter first, and the crispy exterior forms a barrier that prevents the terrine liquids from escaping. That’s why you can’t let the finished dish sit. It's a fry-and-serve dish. I mean, all fried foods are best served fresh out of the fryer, but if you let the ABC sit, the juices will do their thing. Because it is so juicy.
There is a structural elegance to the process – cooking the stock, cooling it into jelly, then melting it all over again inside the breading. If one were getting philosophical, one might think of ongoing cycles of metamorphosis, life and death, destruction and creation –
BW Everything I make turns to shit. But yes, I’m into cycles. Everything is a pattern. Everything needs a contrast, unless you actively don't want one. But usually for something to make sense, you need to have something to oppose it.
What are the opposing elements in your ABC recipe?
BW The cold of the lettuce. The crunch of the batter. The juice in the meat. You’ll cut into a nugget, and you’ll hear a crack. Take your first bite, and you have a bit of hot, a bit of cold. Then the crunch of the celery (if it’s done properly), and the earthiness from the mushrooms, that savory gravy flavor. And the citrus in the spiced nuts breaks up all the low-level flavors, and provides a big flavor accent.
What can you tell us about heartland Chinese-American food?
BW Chinese food is altered for the palate of the market and the clientele. So you have that migration toward more fried foods. Sweeter, thicker sauces. More crunchy stuff. And everyone wants pork fried rice. I didn’t want to do pork fried rice. You know why? Because you can go anywhere and get pork fried rice. But that's what people want – they want what they can get anywhere. And they are pleasantly surprised when something happens to the contrary.
illustration by Hannah Kwan Cosselmon