Welcome back to The Bite, Sheepshead Bites’ weekly column where we explore the foodstuffs of Sheepshead Bay. Each week we’ll check out a different offering from one of the many restaurants, delis, food carts, bakeries, butchers, fish mongers, or grocers in our neighborhood. If it’s edible, we’ll take a bite.
Usually, we here at The Bite try to avoid controversy, but it seems to find us anyway. So this week I decided to embrace the controversial, and headed out to Cherry Hill Market to throw myself in the midsts of one of the neighborhood’s biggest, most heated controversies.
And by that, I mean I picked up one of the more contentious dishes in Russian/Ukrainian cuisine: Chicken Kiev. Oh, what controversy did you think I was talking about?!
For the uninitiated, Chicken Kiev is a butterflied pounded chicken breast filled with a mixture of garlic butter and herbs that is then coated with bread crumbs and deep fried. Most American cooks would use boneless chicken cutlets for this dish, but purists would insist that the wing bone must be included to make the dish authentic.
The Chicken Kiev ($5.00 per piece) served at the take out counter at Cherry Hill Gourmet Market is one large golden pillow filled with the traditional garlic dill butter enrobed by white meat chicken and a thick bread crumb crust. Here, it does include the wing bone; just look at that little handle sticking out on one end. Huzzah!
Now a perfect Chicken Kiev, when cut open, would gush with melted butter. In brochures offered at the Soviet-era Intourist Hotel, where this dish was a menu staple, they warned foreign travelers of the risk of splattering their fronts with the melted butter hiding inside. This offering wasn’t perfect, but it was darn close. No butter erupted, but the flavors of the butter, garlic and dill remained along with some very moist white meat chicken. This is a hefty dish and one piece easily satisfied me for lunch.
So where’s the controversy? It lies in the dish’s origin. According to Wize Geek, it was invented by a French chef, Nicolas Appert, at an American Hotel in New York to appease Eastern European immigrants. I find this claim hard to fathom, as Chef Appert is credited by the Encyclopedia Britannica with inventing commercial canning and does not mention the dish. According to Lesley Chamberlain‘s cookbook, The Food and Cooking of Russia, “Chicken Kiev is a Soviet hotel and restaurant classic which has no pre-revolutionary history as far as I have been able to discover.” If that’s not enough, Vyacheslav Kozachuk, head chef at Kozak Mamai in Kiev, states, “It’s an old, old recipe which my teachers had been taught about in turn by their tutors,” and “I couldn’t give you any exact explanation as to its origins, such as some chef from Kiev cooking it for Lenin in 1917.”
Food writer and historian Vilyam Pokhlebkin probably got the origins right. According to Marcus Warren in Email From Ukraine, “Pokhlebkin traces the recipe’s origins back to the decadent dying days of Tsarist Russia, when restauranteurs tried to attract the custom of moneyed men of the world with gypsy choirs, exotic dancers and erotic ‘tableaux vivants’ as much as food. The Novomikhailovsky Cutlet, as the dish was then known, was invented by an unnamed chef in the newly opened Merchants’ Club in St. Petersburg and named after a palace nearby. Its vulgar extravagance was typical of the period, Pokhlebkin argues.”
Along with the Czars, Chicken Kiev’s popularity died out some time around World War I, and according to Pokhlebkin, “It was revived for a banquet to welcome a delegation of Ukrainian diplomats back home to Kiev after signing peace treaties in Eastern Europe post-1945.” Today it is a staple of banquet halls everywhere.
Cherry Hill Gourmet Market, 1901 Emmons Avenue, (718) 616-1900.