When I was a foreign correspondent in Moscow, I was unique in that I was allowed a car without a Soviet chauffeur to make sure I went only between the daily ministry press conference or approved interviews and my office. I drove it wherever it was I wanted to. Which was crucial because I was also the only foreign correspondent who had zero access to weekly imports of fresh food from Helsinki and the monthly supplies of household goods from Stockholm, unlike all the others. Along with every Russian woman, I had to stand in line after work to shop locally at businesses baldly called ‘Meat’ and ‘Bread’ and ‘Fish’ and ‘Vegetables Fruit’. So whenever I drove past a straggle of people queuing randomly in the street, I pulled in and joined them.
Who knew what they were queuing for - they didn’t, and no-one dared leave their slot to find out. Whatever it was, you bought it. Two, if you could. Because someone somewhere at some time would be happy to barter this treasure for their treasure that you needed for another barter with someone else.
I had a box under my bed filled with loot. A shiny pink and pointy bra Jean Paul Gaultier would have admired and of an enormous cup size got me the length of cloth another woman was happy to exchange for a ticket to the Bolshoi which the dentist wanted before he would give me an appointment. A pair of knitted leggings seduced a technician over to look at my broken washing machine - look at it, mind you. Not mend it. For that, he wanted a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label, only available at the foreign currency store to which I did not immediately hold coupons.
You never left home without a length of string in case rolls of loo paper were the gold at the end of the line. These would be threaded onto that string, to wear home as a bulky necklace so very coveted by the passengers of your bus or metro carriage who all depended on torn up copies of Pravda.
Sometimes, the top of a street queue produced booty not for bartering but for keeping - a frozen lobster from Havana, tomatoes in the middle of winter from some Georgian’s allotment, far, far away, and once, of all unnecessaries, quails eggs from who knew where. Similarly, Belgian endive, and pineapples.
I realised I had an entertaining life-experience advantage over my colleagues whose regular deliveries of Pringles and Coco Pops and any fruit you care to name confined them only to adventures round Moscow condoned by their KGB drivers. So I began a weekly newsletter for the ex-pat community on what food was going for sale on what street corner and how to cook it. ‘Capital Gains’, it was called, and distributed by the American Embassy. After a time, they rang me up. The Kremlin had telephoned to ask if their wives could be put on the mailing list. Streuth, I thought. If the Kremlin wives need to know where to get food, the Soviet Union really is up the creek.
When I moved to Washington, I carried on. Bored by ferrying children about after work from swim meets to after-school activities to sleep-overs around the US capital’s suburbs, I’d stop at every mom-and-pop store to investigate what food they were selling. The quickest way to settle in anywhere is to know where to get hold of the comforts of Home that make you feel At Home in your new environment. Where could a supply of Marmite be found in Washington? At Rodman’s, on Wisconsin Avenue. A range of fish that went far beyond the cod and salmon and tuna of Whole Foods’ conservative selection? The Korean supermarkets in Merrifield, Virginia, just across the Potomac River. The best pho outside Hanoi? The Wilson Boulevard, fondly known locally as the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Washington’s suburbs reflect the alleged CIA saying, “Lose a country, gain a restaurant.” They are populated by communities of political refugees and migrants from Vietnam, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Mexico, Laos and anywhere else the State Department has intervened. Name a country that may have been the target of CIA destabilisation or an actual conflict and you’ll find some of its more fortunate citizens rehoused in the ‘burbs around the US capital.
Moscow’s ‘Capital Gains’ quickly transformed into a web site, ‘eatWashington - the world on your plate’. Whether you were an American national or from some foreign country, in this particular capital, you could travel the world without needing a passport - if only you were prepared to drive just a few miles north, south, east or west from the Capitol building.
Food doesn’t simply feed us. It breaks down barriers, introducing us to unfamiliar nations over the friendly dinner table through dishes that can be exhilarating, refreshing and illuminating. How other peoples eat can remove the fear and suspicion we undergo in their regard. As determined pop-up food trucks or bricks-and-mortar restaurateurs in so many cities increasingly introduce us to the cuisines of countries to which we’ve never travelled, we can learn more about those cultures supposed to fill us with suspicion from their food that fills us instead with pleasure.
So, one year on from Putin’s misconceived, arrogant invasion of 24th February, in the hope that someone in the Kremlin might still be subscribing to my food tips, I offer a recipe for Chicken Kyiv to remind them that the citizens of Ukraine are people just like them, wanting only the liberty to go about their daily business without fear and oppression, free to make their own choices over the lives they want to live.
Long before Moscow became the Russian capital, Kiev, as it was written then, was the first seat of the medieval Russian empire, and the major centre of trade and culture. Founded on three hills overlooking the Dneiper River and benefitting from the fertile soil of the region that produced abundant food both cultivated and wild, its cooking was sophisticated. Ukraine has given us the thick beetroot soup borscht, pampushki - savoury or sweet doughnut-like buns, galushki and vareniki - two types of dumpling, salo, cured pork fat as good as any Italian lardo, along with Chicken Kiev.
Perhaps these are other reasons why Putin wants Ukraine back.
No-one is sure of the origins of Chicken Kyiv. But it’s likely to have been influenced by the French. From the 18th century on, Russian chefs began adopting techniques of French haute cuisine, Russian aristocrats even going so far as to hire culinary wizards like Marie-Antoine Carême to come and cook for them. He spent several months in 1818 in St Petersburg, where he had an immediate impact on the food of the court of Alexander I.
He will have introduced his employers to meat butchery of a kind unfamiliar in Russia, creating high quality cuts like escalopes, cutlets and steaks not previously known to the Russian gentry. The meat from local markets in my own Moscow experience was butchered in the manner of the killer behind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
More commonly referred to in Russia as côtelette de volaille or suprême de voilaille à la Kiev (though who knows if that is any longer still on menus in Moscow), Chicken Kiev is not a dish familiar to the French as one of their own. It’s possible Carême took the Russian Pozharsky Kotleti, a breaded and fried chicken cutlet stuffed with minced meat mixed with a quantity of butter, and developed it. In a Chicken Kiev, the minced meat is entirely supplanted by a sumptuous amount of butter, parsley, and garlic.
With the passing of red-checked tablecloths and Chianti bottles weeping with melted candlewax, Chicken Kiev may have fallen out of favour in the west. But it is still popular in the countries of the former Eastern Bloc and deserves a comforting revival everywhere else.
Putin and anyone else tucking into it needs to be careful with the first cut. The melted butter it contains is very likely to spray all over the diner. Don’t be too shy to tuck a napkin round your neck.
2 skinless chicken breasts
50g/1¾ oz salted butter, at room temperature
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
2 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
1 tablespoons tarragon, finely chopped
1 tablespoon chives, finely chopped
zest and juice of ½ lemon
2 tablespoons flour, seasoned
2 eggs, beaten
4 tablespoons Panko or dried breadcrumbs, seasoned with ½ teaspoon paprika
Vegetable oil for deep frying
Mash together the butter, garlic, herbs and lemon zest and juice, and season with black pepper. Form into 2 sausages, and wrap in clingfilm. Put in the fridge and chill till rigid.
Open out each breast with a sharp knife. Lay it between 2 sheets of clingfilm and bash with a rolling pin or meat tenderiser until about 0.5cm/¼ in thick but don’t make any holes. Season both sides well.
Put a sausage of butter near one edge of the chicken and begin rolling the meat up around it, tucking in the ends as you go. Roll into a tight sausage using the clingfilm, and freeze for 2 hours.
Put the seasoned flour, eggs and breadcrumbs into 3 shallow dishes and then roll the frozen kyivs in each in turn, then again in the eggs and crumbs to double coat. Put in the fridge to defrost, about an hour.
Preheat the oven to 150C/300F.
Heat the vegetable oil in a large pan or fryer until a crumb of bread turns golden in about 15 seconds, then gently lower in the first kyiv. Cook it for 8½ minutes, then drain on kitchen paper and put in the oven to keep warm while you cook the next. Serve immediately.
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I was recently in Sri Lanka. Positively (negatively) lifting with Russian draft dodgers. If all of them now abroad were back in Russia demonstrating, they might force change.
I love all your articles, but this one is especially good with your history lesson, sarcasm and recipe.