July 01, 2001

Chicken Kiev's little-known origin

In the great American film comedy, A Fish Called Wanda, Archie Leech (John Cleese) seduces Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) by rattling off foreign words. When Wanda asks Archie if he knows any Russian, he offers, in a thick Slavic accent: “Gorbachev, perestroika, Chicken Kiev,” and Wanda melts …Ironically, Cleese got it right. Despite its name, Chicken Kiev (actually, Kotlety po-Kievsky), is a Russian, not Ukrainian, invention. 

According to the culinary historian William Pokhlyobkin, this famous dish was created in 1912 to satisfy the wealthy and jaded palates of members of St. Petersburg’s Club of Russian Merchants. The Club was known as “çÓ‚ÓÏËı‡ÈÎÓ‚ÒÍË ÍÓÚÎÂÚ˚”, in honor of Mikhailovsky Castle (see Russian Life, May/June 2001), which was located near the Club. 

As with much pre-Revolutionary cuisine, the recipe was “misplaced” after WWI and the October Revolution. But apparently it was rediscovered in 1947 and prepared for a narrow circle of Ukrainian diplomats. This time, the ÍÓÚÎÂÚ˚ were fried on Kiev’s Kreshchatik street, under their new name: ÍÓÚÎeÚ˚ ÔÓ-äË‚ÒÍË. Within ten years, Kotlety po-Kievsky had become standard fare at Intourist restaurants catering to foreign visitors, which helped the dish gain wide renown, despite the inherent hazard of eating it:  the hot butter sealed inside the cutlets can easily squirt out and spatter the diner’s clothes. (The secret is to pierce the kotleta gently with a fork, so that the butter flows out slowly, but of course this warning was not often voiced by surly Soviet waiters.)

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