As an Italian-Australian kid, I liked to keep my exotic food preferences to myself. But I’m now happy to share.
Russian Salad (insalata russa) featured on our dinner table in Australia each New Year’s Eve and on special occasions from the late 1950s onwards. When we returned to Italy in 1964 on the ocean liner SS Marconi, I was bereft at leaving my friends in Sydney, but found solace in having access to that dish daily. Twenty six days at sea with buffet table bliss! I loved the stuff and piled my plate high, and didn’t have to hide my passion for it from my school friends.
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.
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. No, he’d slap the prepared mixture into a round cake shape, coat it with extra mayonnaise and decorate it with sliced hard-boiled eggs, gherkins (cornichons), black olives, capers and tomatoes.
There are many takes on insalata russa and the dish has been adapted to reflect national cuisines, and varies considerably. There’s no disputing the most popular ingredients are potatoes, carrots, peas and home-made mayonnaise with good extra virgin olive oil.
I asked Sydney chef/restaurateur Stefano Manfredi for his thoughts on the dish and he suggested zucchini, celery, capsicum (red & yellow), beans. The influential Italian cookbook The Silver Spoon includes one cooked beet, as does our household bible Cucina Triestina.
I also consulted someone who brings considerable gravitas to the table. Liberace, the late American pianist/entertainer, has Italian as well as Polish roots (Italian father, Polish mother). ‘Mr Showmanship’ was a dab hand in the kitchen and his book Liberace Cooks! (published 1970) includes a Russian Salad recipe – and he has 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.
So why is it difficult to find this universal dish in restaurants in Australia – Russian dinner dances notwithstanding. Unfashionably retro? Too hard to deconstruct? At the very least it should be sold in delis, so that I won’t have to wait for my next trip back to Italy to buy a take-away scoopful.