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Throwback Thursday: Chicken Kyiv

TGIFOOD

A CLASSIC REBRANDED

Throwback Thursday: Chicken Kyiv

Chicken Kiev. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Is it Ukrainian or Russian? Or even French? Like everything in contemporary life, it’s complicated, and the origin of the world-famous dish traditionally called Chicken Kiev is disputed.

Like many things in modern life, the origins of Chicken Kyiv are murky and hard to pinpoint. What is it? In essence, it’s a chicken breast fillet that has been pounded and given a stuffing of cold butter, then crumbed and cooked. That is the tradition as found in hotel restaurants, particularly in the latter decades of the 20th century and in recent decades in supermarket freezers as a ready-meal. What it is not, purists say, is a chicken breast filled with flavoured butter.

Chicken Kyiv is seen as a modern variation on Côtelettes de Volaille, or kotleta de-voliay, a stuffed chicken breast dish which a host of sources cite as being of Russian origin with French influences. In the 1840s, Russian royals, as they were wont to do, sent their chefs off to Paris in search of new fare for their bounteous table, who then returned with a dish for chicken “cotelettes”, or cutlets, stuffed in the way we know Chicken Kyiv to be. 

Wikipedia elaborates that the “main difference between the old time côtelette de volaille and the modern chicken cutlet Kiev-style is that the elaborate stuffings of the former are replaced by butter”.

That Chicken Kyiv is French, or French-influenced, does make sense, given that the dish appears to be a variation of the famous French-Swiss chicken Cordon Bleu, which is pounded chicken (or pork) fillet wrapped around cheese, or cheese and ham, and then crumbed and baked or fried. Chicken Kyiv contains no cheese or ham, but rather cold butter which warms while it cooks. Variations for which the butter is blended with either garlic or parsley, or both, or neither, are frowned upon as not traditional but do appear on many menus under the name Chicken Kiev. It is even argued by purists in Kyiv itself that while most of the butter inside will melt, just a little should remain cold when served on the plate.

But let’s go further back. Enter the “Pozharsky cutlet”. This was a breaded patty made from chicken mixed with butter, and popular in Russian cuisine in the first half of the 19th century, cites Wikipedia. It adds: “This dish was a widely appraised invention of 19th century Russian cuisine, which was also adopted by French haute cuisine and subsequently by the international cuisine.”

Wikipedia concludes that “while the roots of Chicken Kiev can thus be traced back to French haute cuisine and Russian cookery of the 19th century, the origin of the particular recipe known today as Chicken Kiev remains disputed”.

Stepping forward to recent decades, the dish is made, strictly speaking, with only cold butter in the centre of the lean breast before it is crumbed and cooked. Variations that include parsley or garlic, or both, are regarded as latter day French or British-influenced variations of the dish that was prepared in Kyiv restaurants.

How the dish got onto those Kyiv menus is another thing and, yes, also disputed. “Modern” Chicken Kyiv/Kiev, says Wikipedia, was invented at the luxury Continental Hotel in the centre of Kyiv in the early 20th century. The hotel fell to Nazi mines during World War II. Wikipediia cites “oral tradition” in the city as the source of this knowledge, as well as “contemporary memoirs” citing it as the hotel’s signature dish.

But here’s the pertinent part: “‘Chicken cutlets Kiev-style’ were listed in Apportionments for dinners, separate dishes and other products of public catering (1928) which served as a standard reference for Soviet catering establishments,” says the Wikipedia entry, adding, “The book demanded renaming of many traditional restaurant dishes to replace the (mostly French-style) ‘bourgeois’ names with simple ‘proletarian’ forms. In particular, the ‘cutlet Kiev-style’ had to be renamed into ‘chicken cutlet stuffed with butter’. This programme was not realised immediately (at least not completely), and its successor, The Directory of Apportionments for Catering (1940), published by the Soviet Ministry of Food Industry, still included the traditional names.

“In post-World War II publications of this directory and in other Soviet cookery books, such as Cookery (1955), the ‘Kiev-style’ name was retained, but the terms de volaille and à la Maréchale were indeed dropped in favour of simple names…”

The Economist casts more light. In a piece asserting that the dish “was modified to perfection in the 19th century by a Ukrainian chef, hence the misleading name”, it brings “Chicken Kiev” right into the glasnost era and May 1990 when the Soviet Union disintegrated and “its leader Mikhail Gorbachev made what was, in effect, a concession speech to assembled dignitaries after a dinner at the Soviet embassy in Washington. Socialism in one country, the inward-looking dogma of the Russian Communist Party, was over.

“Instead, announced Gorbachev, ‘We have figured out we live in one world, in one civilisation.’ The dish that the General Secretary and his guests had just polished off was a perfect symbol of Russia’s new internationalism and consumerism. Chicken Kiev: a Russian speciality that had become a staple in supermarkets around the world.

“According to the Russians, chicken Kiev originated in the Muscovy region of the old Empire… This story reflects Russia’s traditional policy towards Ukraine: to let it exist as a distinct entity, but keep it firmly under the thumb of its old imperial master. In the Russian Federation, government canteens have cheekily rebranded the dish ‘chicken Crimea’.”

The Economist dubbed it “the world’s most contested ready-meal”.

In the world’s restaurants of the 20th century, Chicken Kyiv came to be a staple on almost every menu. In New York restaurants such as The Russian Tea Room it went on to menus and became a US staple, but that’s hardly worthy of any claim that it should be seen as an American dish. There was nearly 150 years of Chicken Kyiv history before that happened. In Britain, well, it became sort of “British” in the way that Chicken Tikka is sort of British. Ubiquitous, but not truly owned.

Côtelettes de Volaille, or kotleta de-voliay, Pozharsky cutlet, Chicken Kiev. Call it what you will. I’m calling it Chicken Kyiv. You have the freedom to decide whether to use the butter plain or with parsley and/or garlic.

Ingredients

For the butter:

6 Tbsp butter

2 cloves garlic, minced (optional)

1 Tbsp chopped parsley (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

For the chicken:

4 chicken breasts

Canola oil for deep or shallow frying

For the coating:

1 cup plain flour

Salt

Pepper

½ tsp Cayenne pepper

1 tsp good old South African chicken spice

2 eggs, beaten

For the crumb:

2 cups breadcrumbs

Zest of 1 small lemon

½ tsp Cayenne pepper for the crumb

Salt and pepper

Method

Mix butter ingredients together and refrigerate until needed.

Mix dry ingredients in a plastic container except for the breadcrumbs, and stir so that seasonings are evenly distributed.

Beat eggs in a separate container for dipping the prepared breasts into.

Pour the breadcrumbs into a third bakkie and stir in the seasoning.

Butterfly the chicken fillets. Lay out a sheet of plastic cling film. Using a small, very sharp knife, slice side-on into each breast but not all the way, so that you can fold it out (hence, butterflied). Place another sheet of cling film on and pat/push the flesh down with your palm and the side of your hand to thin it and increase its area, but being careful not to break the flesh. Lay out all 4 breasts in front of you, uncovered.

Divide the cold butter into four pieces. Spread it evenly over the centre of the breasts.

Fold all ends over to make a round ball.

Turn each one over so that the smooth side is at the top.

Wrap them in cling film and refrigerate for 40 minutes or so.

Bread the chicken balls by dipping them first into flour, then egg, then the crumbs.

Return them to the fridge for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 200℃ and heat oil in a deep pan to 160℃.

Pan fry the breasts until golden then transfer to an oven tray lined with foil and bake for 15 to 20 minutes. DM/TGIFood

To enquire about Tony Jackman’s book, foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau) please email him at [email protected]

Our Thank God It’s Food newsletter is sent to subscribers every Friday at 6pm, and published on the TGIFood platform on Daily Maverick. It’s all about great reads on the themes of food and life. Subscribe here.

Send your recipes to [email protected] with a hi-resolution horizontal (landscape) photo.

Sources: Wikipedia, npr.org

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