Why Indian restaurants shouldn’t go out of Kiev or Stroganoff

It was part of “aspirational” continental cuisine in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata from the 1950s until the 1990s. It continues to be part of big shaadi menus, even when served in steel dongas by the halwai district . And lately it’s been in the news again.

Russian salad, arguably one of India’s favorite ‘salads’, has been the subject of much scorn, anger and memes on social media as Russia’s war on Ukraine escalates. continues. A cafe in Kerala even announced that they were removing it from the menu. But this cancel culture with food is misguided, with each dish being the product of various influences.

russian salad

First of all. The Russian salad smeared with mayonnaise is not a bastard invention of an Indian restaurant on the model of the Manchurian gobhi. In its current form, it is quite a Soviet-era food for the proletariat, which was served in public canteens throughout the Soviet bloc as a convenient dish that could be assembled en masse from raw ingredients. canned and bottled sauce, as the state cultivated the culture and image of the hard-working Soviet woman on its farms and factories – in contrast to the American domestic goddesses of the 1950s and 1960s, with the family at the heart of capitalism , as a 1988 Los Angeles Times article, ‘Women Stayed At Home During The Cold War’ postulated.

Canned goods and factory-produced sauces (mayonnaise made from sunflower oil) saved time on domestic life and therefore the version of Russian salad among us today – it is popular around the world whole in countries as varied as Greece and Turkey, Iran and Spain and almost all of Eastern and Central Europe — is certainly a working-class dish particularly suited to restaurants and institutional catering.

Like many other foods, including our very own biryani, it began its journey at the opposite end of the social spectrum, however, as food for the elite. The noble “Salad Olivier” is said to have been concocted by a cook from Tsarist Russia in the 19th century at the Hermitage restaurant in Moscow. Expensive ingredients such as grouse, smoked duck, capers and olives (a southern European product, not the freezing north) were used in a dressing that resembles southern European aioli (an emulsion of olive oil and garlic often also incorporating egg yolks).

But after the Russian Revolution, when the aristocrats fled, the Olivier began to use cheaper ingredients – chicken or potatoes instead of grouse, gherkins instead of capers or pickled dill, peas instead of olives, etc. It is often a vegetarian salad, sometimes with the addition of cheap sausages, and a special New Year’s dish in many Slavic regions. But it reached its gastronomic nadir (as well as a new lease of life as a mass food) in the Soviet canteens of old, where it could be assembled from canned vegetables made in state factories and covered of industrial mayonnaise based on sunflower oil (! ).

It is no coincidence that mayonnaise defines Russian cuisine even today – the country is reputed to be the only one in the world where industrial mayonnaise is consumed more than industrial ketchup!

The Cold War influenced the food and culture of the world in complex ways. If Russian salad became popular as a cooked dish throughout Europe (and America) before finding its way into Indian restaurants, other dishes have followed suit. All of these innovations have had an impact on what we now call ‘the globalization of the palace’.

The American image of women cooking healthy food at home (as opposed to the Soviet stereotype) had several ramifications. Innovation and sales of cooking appliances increased for one, first in America, then in Western Europe and elsewhere. Then there were indirect effects: veterans returning from Europe meant an increase in the notoriety and fashion of French and Italian food and drink.

Culinary chronicles, cookbooks and television shows detailing how to cook many of them grew, Julia Child became a cult, much like French cuisine in the United States, paving the way for its recognition as the most influential global cuisine in the world.

In the decades that followed, in the 1960s and 1970s, many of these dishes and fads also made their way to elite Indian restaurants. Although McDonald’s, which had started the chain restaurant business, with hot dogs/burgers popular with WWII soldiers as its centerpiece, would not come to India until after liberalisation.

The Cold War coincided perfectly with the years between the partition and the liberalization of India and Indian restaurants. These years saw the establishment and growing popularity of food that was clearly different from the pre-independence past.

In the aftermath of partition, many Punjabi and Sindhi immigrants opened restaurants in New Delhi as well as Calcutta and Mumbai. The food they served was a hodgepodge of tandoori, mongrel moghlai, anglo-indian from the old colonial masters, as well as the new “continental” from the new world order.

Restaurants such as Volga in Delhi, Mocambo and Peter Cat in Kolkata, all of which opened in the 1950s, not only served Russian salad or crab salad, another Soviet-era invention, using chopped crab and canned sweet corn (these went into the Indo-Chinese sweet corn soup, also a popular recipe of that time), but also Chicken Kiev and Stroganoff, very fashionable as “food European” in America in the 1960s.

In the wake of Russia’s war on Ukraine, Western media used the Ukrainian spelling “Kyiv” instead of the Soviet “Kiev”, but Mocambo’s Nitin Kothari refused to rename the iconic dish on his menu and change its spelling.

Chicken Kiev

Supposed to be based on a 19th century Imperial dish using fatty poultry, Chicken Kiev, according to the Calvert Journal which documents Eastern European culture and food, was well known on menus of the era. in tourist (for tourists) restaurants (these menus contained warnings against staining your clothes with the oozing butter). American and European diplomats who tried it were clearly won over and took it with them to the foodie capitals of the West, from where it spread to Kolkata and Delhi. When the dish first appeared as a Marks & Spencer ready-to-eat dish in 1979, its westernization was complete.

Then there are the Stroganoffs. Again, a dish whose origin is usually traced to imperialist Russia, yet it was well known in Shanghai (then known as the Paris of the East) in the 1920s. When Russian immigrants reached the In the United States after the revolution, it appeared on elite menus such as New York’s Russian Tea Room founded by members of the Imperial Ballet in 1927.

But its popularity only skyrocketed in the aftermath of World War II, when American interest in “ethnic” foods had never been higher. Homecoming war veterans returned with a taste and yen for the global, even as the recreation turned kitschy.

Now concocted with canned mushroom soup, served over a bed of rice, with the addition of factory-made tomatoes and often soy sauce, Stroganoff has become this European-Chinese-American hybrid dish of dubious provenance. That’s how it came to us in India – to our old favorites of Connaught Place and Park Street, to be enjoyed with cold beer and dreams of sophistication.



The opinions expressed above are those of the author.


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