In Search of the Real Russian SaladJuly 30, 2013
As an Italian-Australian kid, I liked to keep my exotic food preferences to myself. And I still do.
Russian Salad (insalata russa) featured on our dinner table each New Year’s Eve and on special occasions from the 1960s onwards. When we sailed back to Italy in 1964 on the ocean liner SS Marconi, I was rewarded for my lack of enthusiasm in leaving Australia by having access to the dish daily. Twenty six days of buffet table bliss. I loved the stuff and piled my plate high.
It’s thought the dish was invented in Russia in the late 1880s by Belgian chef Lucien Olivier. Or was it? France* also has claims on salade russe. Whatever its origins, it made its way to Italy (perhaps through the Piemonte region) and later Spain (where it’s known as ‘ensaladilla rusa’ and served in tapas and pintxos bars). Add to that Iran, Israel, Serbia, Poland, Greece, Turkey and South America and you’ve pretty much got a universal dish.
So why is it so hard to find in Australian restaurants – Russian dinner dances notwithstanding. Unfashionably retro? Too hard to deconstruct? At the very least it should be sold in delis, as in Italy, so I don’t have to wait for my next trip back to buy a take-away scoopful.
When we made insalata russa, my mother looked after the cooking and my father was assigned mayo making and assembling duties. Not for him the dumping of assorted vegetables in mayonnaise into a salad bowl. Oh no. He’d slap the prepared mixture into a cake shape, coat it with extra mayonnaise and decorate it with sliced hard-boiled eggs, gherkins (cornichons), black olives, capers and tomatoes.
The dish has been adapted to reflect national cuisines, although here we’re not looking at the controversy caused by the Great Bolognese Sauce Debate (ie to cream or not to cream). There’s no disputing the most popular core ingredients are potatoes, carrots, peas and home-made mayonnaise using good olive oil. But everyone has their own version and the additions are endless.
I quizzed Sydney chef/restaurateur Stefano Manfredi and he suggested ‘zucchini, celery, capsicum (red & yellow), beans’. Influential Italian cookbook The Silver Spoon includes ‘one cooked beet’. Our household bible Cucina Triestina also adds beetroot to the core ingredients.
Finally, I consulted someone who brings considerable gravitas to the table. Liberace, the late American pianist/entertainer, and subject of the newly released film Behind the Candelabra has Italian as well as Polish roots (Italian father, Polish mother). ‘Mr Showmanship’ was a dab hand in the kitchen and his 1970 book Liberace Cooks! includes a Russian Salad recipe. And he appears to have everything but the candelabra in it … including beets.
*In France, the dish is also known as salade piémontaise (after the Piedmont region in Italy) adding to the confusion about its origins.