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Continental shift

Chicken Kiev always strikes me as being a good metaphor for ‘Continental cuisine’ because it is a dish that admits to no national origin, writes Vir Sanghvi. Read on...

india Updated: Oct 10, 2009 20:34 IST
Vir Sanghvi

In the old days, long before we had speciality restaurants, we had all-purpose restaurants that stayed open all day and served every kind of cuisine. In Bombay, Chicken Kievsuch restaurants lined both sides of Churchgate Street. In Delhi, they were scattered all over Connaught Place.

If you went to Gaylord in Bombay for instance (or in Delhi, I would imagine), you could eat a very good rogan josh as well as a reasonable approximation of what used to be called Continental cuisine. Or you could just have a sandwich. Or a pastry. Or a coffee. Or you could come at night and listen to the live band (three guys in dodgy suits, one double bass and somebody like ‘Sweet Lorraine’ at the mike.)

The Indian cuisine of that era survives. It was a sort of Punjabi restaurant food (most such restaurants were Punjabi-owned because Punjabis are India’s natural restaurateurs) of the kind that you will still find in a small-town Kwality and in those restaurants of that era which still flourish (Khyber in Bombay, perhaps).

But the so-called ‘Continental cuisine’ has largely vanished, to be replaced (usually) with bogus chilli Chinese. Given that neither was ever an authentic cuisine, I have to say that I’ll take the made-up ‘Continental’ over the phoney Chinese. And I have a deep nostalgia for some of the dishes that were invented in Connaught Place or Churchgate Street or even Calcutta’s Park Street and now are hardly remembered.

For many Indians, these dishes were our introduction to European cuisine. Many of us never progressed beyond them: thousands of Calcuttans still believe that the old Sky Room’s Chicken Tetrazzini represents the crowning achievement of Italian cuisine.

Some of these dishes, however, were not entirely Indian. They were creatures of their time all over the world. For instance, menus in that era were full of stroganoffs and goulashes. You can argue about the authenticity of our Indian versions of these dishes. But you can’t deny that in restaurants all over the world, in the Fifties and Sixties, such dishes were menu staples.

But the dish that will always sum up that era for me is Chicken Kiev. You’ve probably come across it. Unlike many other dishes of that era, this was regarded as very sophisticated and so, only made it into the menus of the more upmarket establishments. It survived well into the Seventies. And you’ll still find it on many menus, even today.

Chicken Kiev always strikes me as being a good metaphor for ‘Continental cuisine’ because it is a dish that admits to no national origin. It was as much a bogus creation on the Champs-Élysées as it was on Churchgate Street. It was made up by restaurants, tarted up with national variations and then made its way around the world, all the way from New York to New Delhi.

There are many versions of Chicken Kiev. But in its purest, most basic form, it is essentially a piece of chicken that is rolled around lots of butter, is bread crumbed and then fried. When you dig your knife into it, the melted butter should gush out.

A close relative is another bogus dish, the so-called Chicken Cordon Bleu. This takes the name of the rather dull cooking school in Paris but is essentially a breaded piece of chicken wrapped around cheese, ham, butter etc. Both dishes would be considered passé today but there was a time when they were the rage all over the world. But while Chicken Cordon Bleu at least has a national origin in that it was probably created by a French chef, Chicken Kiev is essentially rootless.

I always had the feeling that this was so. Some years ago, when I went to Moscow, I scoured local restaurants to see if I could find it. I was convinced that it would be as unfamiliar to Russians as Balti Chicken is to Indians. To my surprise, I did find it and it tasted remarkably like the version we used to get in Connaught Place.

I did some research and discovered that in the city of Kiev (now the capital of the Ukraine) it was considered their country's national dish and turned up on every menu. So had my gut feeling about its authenticity been wrong? Probably not. I have been reading up on Chicken Kiev and the broad consensus is that the dish was unheard of in Kiev, or the Ukraine or Russia till after the Second World War. The most frequent references to it are from New York menus in the 1920s or so.

So how could there be a Russian (all right, Ukrainian) dish that was unknown in its home but appeared on American menus? The story gets even more complicated. The origins of Chicken Kiev do not appear to have American roots. The dish – at least in terms of recipe if not name – has been traced to France and to a particular chef who claimed to have invented it. So how did it get to New York? One theory is that like all French dishes, it crossed the Atlantic to the American melting pot. New York restaurateurs were eager, in the 1920s, to attract Russian custom. So they called it Chicken Kiev. And the name stuck.

If this theory is right – and it is only a theory – then it begs many questions, among them the obvious one: why would Russians go to a New York restaurant to eat a dish that they knew to be entirely inauthentic? Do you know any homesick Indians who rush to a Birmingham curry house to eat Balti Chicken because they have been conned into believing that it is an Indian dish? Nobody has any answers. What we do know is that Chicken Kiev which by now, had French, American and Russian ancestry claimed for itself, suddenly became an Italian dish in the Sixties – but only in London. (Nobody in Italy had heard of this version.)

Mario and Franco were legendary London restaurateurs in the Sixties running such restaurants as La Terrazza and Trattoo. I remember, as a child, being fed their speciality, Chicken Sorpresa at Trattoo in 1969 or thereabouts. This was essentially Chicken Kiev with a little Parmesan mixed with the butter.

At Trattoo, the waiter would bring the dish to your table and then, after making suitably Italianite flourishes, would slice the chicken open so that the melted butter spilled out all over the plate. (Apparently, Mario and Franco were worried that otherwise the butter would spurt out and stain the clothes of their customers!)

I was not to know it then but Chicken Sorpresa was a made-up dish with nothing Italian about its provenance. Mario and Franco say they invented it but more likely, they just adapted the Chicken Kiev recipe. But Chicken Sorpresa has also travelled around the world. It turns up on Italian menus (outside of Italy of course) and many people think of it as an authentic Italian dish.

In 1979, Chicken Kiev received the ultimate accolade. The British retail chain Marks and Spencer decided to introduce ready-to-eat meals. They began with Chicken Kiev. But because Brits were more familiar with the Mario and Franco version, they tweaked the recipe to include lots of garlic and Italian herbs. Thirty years later, Chicken Kiev is still sold by Marks and Spencer and others have copied it as a ready-meal.

Which leaves two mysteries. One: if it is a made-up dish, then why did I find it in Moscow? Why is it on every menu in Kiev? The short answer seems to be that food is international. Once Russians (and Ukrainians) realised that the most famous ‘Russian’ dish in the world was one they had never heard of, they quickly adopted it as their very own and put it on restaurant menus. The second mystery is: how did it arrive in Connaught Place, Churchgate Street and Park Street? My guess is that some enterprising Indian restaurateur saw it on a foreign menu and realised that (a) Indians would like it because it combined chicken, batter-frying and butter, all popular ingredients and (b) that it was easy to make. Once one restaurateur put it on the menu and it began to move, then it quickly turned up on other menus.

So yes, it is a made-up dish like many of the other ‘Continental’ menu items of that era. But why blame Indian restaurateurs alone? If the whole world can get a little piece of Chicken Kiev, then why should our own restaurants have lagged behind?