How the chicken sandwich came to Kyrgyzstan.

How the chicken sandwich came to Kyrgyzstan.

How the chicken sandwich came to Kyrgyzstan.

Events beyond our borders.
Jan. 29 2004 3:37 PM

McGlobalization

How the chicken sandwich came to Kyrgyzstan.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

It's a scene repeated in myriad nooks and crannies of the global village: The citizens of a country Very Far Away contentedly quaff the local brew at room temperature, blindly stumble about in the dark, relish the bland national fare, reach under the mattress when they need cash, and live in a gloomy world devoid of grilled chicken sandwiches.

Then something happens—a war on terrorism, the discovery of oil or gold, a rare disease, or a sudden interest of a world power in buying some cheap geopolitical insurance. In response, legions of relatively well-heeled foreigners, toting the gaudy luggage of their peculiar tastes, move to Very Far Away. And before long, the local quaintness is joined—and sometimes supplanted—by chilled Heineken on draft, bright streetlights, takeout Thai, and ATMs on every other corner.

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One person's homeland is another's Third World hellhole, of course. Cottage industries evolve to help convert the unfamiliar—for the foreigner—to something a bit more like home, creating small but significant waves of change throughout a society and economy, thereby (depending on your perspective) accelerating the homogenization of global culture, cultivating economic growth and social development, straining the local societal norms, or a bit of all of the above.

The humble grilled chicken sandwich does double duty as a bar food staple and as an illustration of the ripple effects caused by the evolution of local tastes. Until relatively recently, there was nary a Western-style chicken sandwich to be found in the Kyrgyz Republic, one of the post-Soviet "stans" of Central Asia, situated on the far northwestern border of China and south of Kazakhstan

Kyrgyzstan—as it is also called—rose to prominence in the early to mid-1990s in the eyes of global development agencies and aid organizations because of its government's relatively liberal economic policies and its strategic position between Russia to the north and the Islamic world to the south. The country began to receive bales of development aid—and the planeloads of Western consultants charged with spending the cash appropriated to bring about change. They were joined by gold diggers—literally—exploring and mining in the country's vast mountains.

As the number of foreigners in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital, reached a critical mass, an American entrepreneur spotted a market opportunity for a Western-style restaurant/bar that would serve something other than the local cuisine of grilled lamb and mayonnaise-drenched salads or pizza made with ketchup instead of tomato sauce. The recipe was to be Madonna, not Russian teenie pop, and "Can I get you some coffee, sir," rather than a grouchy snarl. The Pub—later christened the Metro Pub, but still referred to around town as the American Pub—opened in 1998, with Americans stationed in the kitchen and behind the bar and to train local employees in the ways of Western food and service.

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One of the initial challenges—finding the ingredients locally for unfamiliar delicacies like burritos, grilled chicken sandwiches, and cheese chili fries—was "very tough at first, since we had a very specific and, for here, unusual cuisine," says Eric Khafizov, a local businessman who was involved in the Pub's startup. Some ingredients, such as buns, were imported from Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, a four-hour car ride away.

As serendipity would have it, around the same time a local baker approached a donor organization granting business loans to local entrepreneurs and asked for funds to expand. "Thing was, he was making the same square, gray bread as everyone else, so we told him to come back with a new idea," said Tom Jacobs, who at the time worked for the donor organization.

The Benjamin Franklin of the local bread set soon returned, fresh from a (donor-funded) fact-finding trip to the Netherlands, with a novel idea: presliced, white sandwich bread packaged in a plastic bag and sealed with a twisty tie. Jacobs' organization funded the effort, and before long, the Wonder baker had diversified into the best thing since sliced bread: buns. The Pub—and, by now, a growing throng of imitators—had all the padding they need for hamburgers and chicken sandwiches.

Chicken breasts were another problem altogether, since the local butchery profession also had to evolve to meet the demands of its new customer. "At that time pretty much every butcher attacked the carcass on a tree stump with an ax, which didn't really do the trick" for chicken breasts, said Jacobs. Local restaurateur lore has it that the foreign spouse of an aid worker opened a butcher shop in Bishkek and started serving up chicken breasts just like Safeway, thereby solving the Pub's chicken breast (and steak) problem.

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Grilling the chicken breast was the easy part, as barbecued meat stands are to Bishkek what Starbuckses are to Seattle. With the confluence of demand, venue, and product, the grilled chicken sandwich came to town, and Bishkek hasn't been the same since.

Indeed, the Pub and its analogues throughout the world do more than supply caloric comfort food to homesick foreigners. "When we opened in Moscow, we brought the Western mentality of service and a Western atmosphere, to Russia," said Sheriff Djoudi, the general manager of one of the two American-style Starlite Diners in Moscow. In an effort to re-create an authentic American dining experience—to go along with the '60s diner décor of old Life magazine covers and framed Elvis gold records—when it opened in 1995, the first Diner imported nearly all its ingredients from the United States. (Buns became available locally only in 1998.) Now borsht and pelmeni—two former Soviet bloc favorites—share menu space with cheeseburgers and pancakes, and at least as many Russians as foreigners patronize Moscow's Starlite Diners.

Indeed, the influence of institutions that sell grilled chicken breast sandwiches and their culinary brethren may be far greater than might appear at first. "We introduced the concept of Western-style customer service to the Russian customer," said Djoudi, "and around the same time, everything started to slowly become more civilized."

Ken Payne, a management consultant who has lived and traveled in the former Soviet Union for most of the past 15 years, describes what he calls the "McDonald's effect": "Before McDonald's came to town [the first McDonald's opened in Moscow in 1990], no one contemplated clean toilets, or service with a smile. … Now, partly because of McDonald's, people no longer tolerate filth or terrible service, and expectations in the society as a whole have been raised."

Ray Kroc and Frank Purdue would be proud: Cultural imperialism or not, Very Far Away is a bit less different, but a bit more pleasant and comfortable—by Western standards, at any rate.