Many foods have strange names, and often the names tell a story – but for those unfamiliar with the story, such names can seem strange or confusing.
A perfect example of this is the peculiarly named chicken-fried chicken, a dish with a moniker that seems to make no sense.
However, the name is actually quite logical if you understand the reasoning, and to explain why, here we answer the question, why is it called chicken-fried chicken?
What is chicken-fried steak?
Naming a dish “chicken-fried chicken” might seem quite strange, but the reasons for this actually make a lot of sense – but to understand why, first we need to talk about another dish called chicken-fried steak as well as a related preparation called country-fried steak.
Chicken-fried steak is a beef dish that’s thought to have been created in the 19th century by Austrian and German migrants to the United States that was based on wiener schnitzel, a dish that supposedly originated in the Austrian capital of Vienna.
Wiener schnitzel consists of a thin strip of veal that is lightly pounded flat before being breaded and fried in fat, and the American version similarly consists of pounded, breaded and deep-fried beefsteak.
This dish is thought to have first appeared in Texas, and Lamesa, the seat of Dawson County, claims to be the birthplace of the dish. Consequently, the city now holds an annual festival to celebrate this renowned typical local type of food.
What does “chicken-fried” mean?
When this dish was created, fried chicken had already long been a popular Southern food, so this new beef dish became known as “chicken-fried steak”, which meant something like “beefsteak fried like chicken”.
In other words, similarities were drawn with the way that Southern-style fried chicken was breaded before frying, and this is reflected in the term “chicken-fried”, which essentially means “fried like chicken”.
A similar dish, country-fried steak, also appeared at around the same time. This dish is made by pounding the beef and then breading it, but this variation is usually pan-fried rather than being deep-fried.
As a result, the term “country-fried” describes something that’s pounded, breaded and then pan-fried as opposed to deep-fried – and the dish “country-fried steak” is made using this technique to prepare a slice of beefsteak.
So what’s chicken-fried chicken?
So if chicken-fried steak means “beefsteak fried like chicken”, what does chicken-fried chicken mean? As we mentioned before, the answer is quite logical.
Since many people enjoy culinary experimentation, after the invention of chicken-fried steak, eventually, somebody had the bright idea of replacing the beef in the dish with chicken.
They took a boneless chicken breast, pounded it flat, covered it in batter and breadcrumbs and then deep-fried it – and chicken-fried chicken was born.
The important point to note is that by this time, the meaning of the term “chicken-fried” had changed.
By now, it no longer literally meant “something cooked like fried chicken”. Instead, it had come to describe a piece of meat that had been pounded flat, breaded and deep-fried like a chicken-fried steak or a wiener schnitzel.
The original American creation used beef, and chicken-fried steak was now used to mean “beef prepared in the chicken-fried style”.
By extension, “chicken-fried chicken” came to mean “chicken prepared in the chicken-fried style”, or in other words, chicken that’s been beaten flat, breaded and deep-fried.
To understand the difference, it’s important to remember the distinction that “chicken-fried chicken” specifically means a piece of chicken that’s been pounded flat, breaded and deep-fried rather than just breaded and deep-fried like traditional fried chicken.
This is because if you just take a piece of chicken, bread it and then deep-fry it without pounding it flat, the resulting dish is simply “fried-chicken” – it isn’t “chicken-fried chicken” because it hasn’t been “chicken-fried” by being beaten flat first.
What’s the difference between chicken-fried chicken and regular fried chicken?
To make things even clearer, let’s look at the definition of regular fried chicken.
Fried chicken is one of the most quintessentially Southern dishes, and its origins are inextricably linked to slavery.
During the period of slavery in the United States, slave owners allowed their slaves to keep chickens since these animals are relatively small and unobtrusive.
Previously, immigrants from Scotland had cooked chicken by battering it and deep-frying it, a technique that remains popular for cooking a range of foods in Scotland to this day.
However, the slaves of the day took this basic idea and improved it by adding seasonings like paprika that were imported from West Africa and then frying the battered chicken in palm oil, creating a wholly more delicious dish.
What’s important for our current discussion though is that fried chicken like this can consist of any part of the chicken, including the breast, the legs or the wings.
Crucially, it can – and often does – include parts of the chicken that are fried with the bones still inside, like the legs.
Chicken-fried chicken, on the other hand, doesn’t contain bones. To be classed as chicken-fried chicken, the meat needs to be pounded flat, so to make it, you need to choose a boneless part of the chicken, which ideally means the breast.
So while fried chicken consists of any part of the chicken that’s battered, spiced and deep-fried, chicken-fried chicken refers only to boneless meat that’s been pounded flat and breaded before deep-frying in the manner of wiener schnitzel or chicken-fried steak.
Which other countries eat chicken-fried chicken or fried chicken?
Although many people associate fried chicken with the Southern US, and chicken-fried steak – along with chicken-fried chicken – is an American creation, similar foods are eaten in many other countries, so let’s have a look at some of those now.
Wiener schnitzel – Austria and Germany
The ancestor of American chicken-fried steak is the wiener schnitzel, which, as the name suggests, originated in Vienna.
The wiener schnitzel itself was first mentioned in a 19th-century cookbook, and some claim the recipe first arrived in Austria from Italy in 1857, being brought back by field marshal Joseph Radetzky von Radetz.
Others dispute this version, however, claiming that the dish was already known in Austria before this time.
In any case, it has now become one of the best-known dishes of Viennese cuisine and is also extremely popular in Germany.
Cotoletta alla milanese
If wiener schnitzel arrived in Vienna from Italy, the dish it was almost certainly based on was cotoletta alla milanese, a veal dish from Milan that was prepared in a similar way.
This dish remains one of the classics of Milanese cuisine, and it’s something that any visitor to the city is recommended to try at least once.
Fried chicken in Japan
Although Japan has a long and rich culinary tradition of its own, many Japanese have been keen to adopt dishes borrowed from or inspired by the cooking styles of other countries, and American-style fried chicken has found its way into Japanese hearts.
Indeed, nowadays, many Japanese eat a meal of fried chicken to celebrate Christmas, despite this not being a traditional Japanese holiday and even though few Japanese are Christians.
As a result, in recent years, eating fried chicken for Christmas has practically become a Japanese national tradition.
KFC in China
The Chinese are also keen consumers of Western and especially American products, including fast food, and in China, by far the most popular international fast food restaurant is KFC.
Known locally as 肯德基 (kĕndéjī), KFC has been present in the country since 1987 when it became the first Western fast food chain to open in China. Since then, the KFC brand has gone on to open many thousands of outlets across the country.
It is thought that KFC initially had a big advantage in China over American burger chains like McDonald’s and Burger King since fried chicken has long been consumed in China while the concept of the hamburger was considered foreign and unfamiliar.
Ayam goreng in Indonesia and Malaysia
One of the most popular dishes in Indonesia and also enjoyed in Malaysia is ayam goreng, which translates literally as “fried chicken” (ayam means “chicken” and goreng means “fried”).
There are many different preparations of deep-fried chicken found throughout the sprawling Indonesian archipelago, but one of the most famous versions is associated with the city of Yogyakarta on the island of Java.
Often served with spicy sambal – or chili sauce – ayam goreng in Indonesia is ubiquitous and extremely affordable. However it’s prepared, it’s invariably delicious, and it’s likely to quickly become a favorite with anyone traveling in the country.
A delicious meal, whatever it’s called
As we’ve seen, although the name might at first seem a bit strange, there’s a logic behind naming a dish “chicken-fried chicken” because “chicken-fried” has come to mean pounded, breaded and deep-fried meat in the style of “chicken-fried steak”.
In any case, whatever you choose to call it, chicken-fried chicken is a delicious American invention, as is chicken-fried steak – along with its antecedents wiener schnitzel and cotoletta alla milanese and the many types of fried chicken found in the US and around the world.