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At first glance, this may seem a commonplace question, but perhaps not so much if we take into account the origins of the Russian salad, whose fame today is almost universal. To find out, we have to go back to the 19th century, a particularly important time in the culinary world with the proliferation of recipe books that summarised the gastronomic tradition of past centuries with a more scientific meticulousness.
The origin of the Russian salad: the Hermitage
It was 1860 when Lucien Olivier, a Belgian-born chef working at the Hermitage – one of the most famous restaurants in Moscow – after having learned from the best chefs of the time in Paris, decided to create a salad in keeping with the status of the restaurant. To do so, he chose to use some of the finest seasonal products available at the time in Tsarist Russia (smoked duck, lettuce, caviar, pheasant, beef tongue, crayfish and capers). Although Oliver himself took the exact recipe to his grave, it is known that the special touch of the dish, the mayonnaise, was made with French wine vinegar, mustard or olive oil from Provence.
The ‘Olivier salad’, as it was known on the menu and as it is today in many countries, soon became the restaurant’s culinary hallmark to the point of being an obscure object of desire for those who worked there. But is this the true origin of the Russian salad? Let’s look into it.
One day, while preparing the famous salad alone (as he always did), Olivier was temporarily absent due to an emergency, leaving the dish half-finished. Without a second thought, one of the cooks, Ivan Ivanov, entered his master’s private kitchen and took the opportunity to carefully observe the salad and try to extract the recipe from what he was observing.
Having succeeded, Ivanov decided to leave the Hermitage and start working in another, less famous restaurant called Moskva, where he tried to sell the dish created by Olivier, calling it ‘Capital salad’. Despite his efforts, he did not achieve the same results as his master, as the “gourmets” of the time could see, arguing that the salad “lacked something” to reach the level of that served at the Hermitage.
How did the salad recipe spread?
Ivanov soon sold the recipe, which helped it to become popular and officially known. It was first printed in 1894 in the Russian magazine “Our food’, changing some of the original ingredients and thus moving away from Olivier’s original recipe, which he took to his grave without telling anyone. The origin of the Russian salad is curious to say the least.
The current recipe for Russian salad is a version of Ivanov’s dish that varies in composition depending on the place. For example, in eastern Russia, herring and unpickled cucumbers are used, while in more southern cities, such as Volgograd, vinaigrette and carrots are added. In today’s Russia it is still very popular, and is in fact the special dish prepared for New Year’s Day.
Real ingredients in Russian salad?
Since the recipe was first published, the dish has quickly spread to other areas, where they have readapted the “formula”. For example, in countries such as Ukraine, they started adding cheaper ingredients such as peas or gherkins.
Broadly speaking, we could say that Russian salad contains:
- Potato (previously cooked in a brine) mixed with mayonnaise. In Mediterranean variants (but never in Russia), a certain amount of canned tuna in oil is usually added, as well as some cooked vegetables such as carrots and peas.
- The rest of the ingredients are important, but depend on the cook, and are usually: some hard-boiled eggs, grated egg (in some areas these are fundamental ingredients), asparagus, piquillo peppers (red or canned peppers), or optionally garlic and prawns. They also usually contain some kind of ingredient that accentuates their acidity, such as whole pitted or chopped olives or chopped pickled gherkins.