As the Soviet Union disintegrated in May 1990, 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. The recipe – for a chicken filled with butter sauce and covered in breadcrumbs – was modified to perfection in the 19th century by a Ukrainian chef, hence the misleading name. 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 French, on the other hand, claim Russia stole the recipe from them – France being, in their eyes, a nation of superior cooks. But then French chefs have form for picking fights with the rest of Europe over the origins of popular dishes, including, audaciously, pizza. In the French version of chicken Kiev, garlic is added to the butter sauce.
What Russians, Ukrainians and French people don’t know is that chicken Kiev was actually invented in 1979 by a British woman called Cathy Chapman. Or at least that was the origin story told to me by my manager, when – on a more-interesting-than-usual day – the glamorous Chapman graced the aisles of the Ellesmere Port branch of Marks & Spencer, where I was working as a “customer assistant”. In her version of events, Chapman had been a lowly shelf-stacker like me until a stock-room epiphany sent her rocketing from the shop floor to the board room. The real story is more prosaic: Chapman had been working as a product developer in the poultry department, charged with thinking up new ideas for convenience foods. In the 1970s M&S had been the first British supermarket to sell frozen meals, like pizza and lasagne. Chapman’s Kiev was, to quote M&S’s press office, “The first prepared meal to be sold in the chiller cabinet”, aka the first modern ready-meal.
It was so popular that in the early 1980s the Office of National Statistics used it to measure inflation, as a typical item the average British consumer might have in their weekly shop. Affordable yet suffused with continental glamour, it came to stand for the increasing aspiration and affluence of the lower-middle classes – an idealised vision of Thatcher’s Britain. In Russia, too, people were increasingly able to buy their own chicken Kiev ready-meals, as supermarkets became more widespread: a sign of the market forces that would help bring about the fall of communism.
But three decades on, it was hard for a Saturday kid at M&S to get excited about the kind of dish you’d find on a “Golden Oldies” menu at a chain gastropub, alongside scampi and gammon and pineapple. Or piled high in your mum’s freezer. Studying at Oxford University a few years later, I encountered the Kiev once again. Surely the chefs at such a venerable institution would know how to cook it properly? As I cut into the inflated chicken nugget, insipid garlic butter oozed out, coating the potatoes and vegetables in grease. As I conducted a post-mortem, opening the Kiev to reveal a spherical cavern, I wondered where the orphaned globule of chicken had ended up. Some questions are better left unanswered.
Chicken Kiev may have lost some of its glamour, but it remains mystifyingly popular. Since the 1980s the recipe has been repeatedly reinvented to satisfy the changing tastes of consumers, the butter filling being replaced with exciting new options like bacon and cheese or ham and leek. At the time of publication, M&S are preparing to unveil yet another variant. Let’s hope they haven’t been inspired by Morrisons, another British supermarket, where vegetarians can buy a “meat-free, chicken-style Kiev”. Consumer choice can be a great thing, but sometimes it can go too far.