Archive for July, 2013


In Search of the Real Russian Salad

July 30, 2013

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.


Image: Marco Salvo/

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.


Image: Doubleday

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.

If you’re ready for showtime, here’s Liberace’s Russian Salad recipe.


Lurking in the Cupboard #6 – ‘Italy In Bocca’ cookbook

July 16, 2013

Something caught my eye this week which led to the next instalment in my occasional Lurking in the Cupboard series. And I’m e$pecially excited. (Yes, the dollar sign’s intentional.)

Turns out that a cookbook I bought in 1980 is worth about $US275. Friuli e Trieste in Bocca (roughly translated as A Taste of Friuli and Trieste) is one of a series of 20 regional Italian cookbooks published in 1978 but now out of print. The rare first edition was recently featured in L.A. Weekly’s ‘Chef’s Library’ series and Saveur magazine – and acknowledged as must-haves by collectors of vintage cookbooks.

Printed on heavy brown recycled paper (with what only looks like bits of grits incorporated into the wood-pulpy stock ) the Italy In Bocca series includes recipes, poems, proverbs, folklore and zany original artwork.

Friuli Venezia Giulia in Bocca cookbook

illustration: Rodo Santoro

The cover illustrations for the series are nothing if not vibrant. I think this edition has captured Kirk Douglas during his Man from Snowy River period but the book predates the film so that’s pure coincidence.

recipe and illustration

illustration: Andrea Sciortino

Most of the books are trilingual – written in English, Italian and a regional dialect. And if that’s not confusing enough, my cookbook has both the Triestine and Friulian dialect, the latter being a Romance language in its own right.

Two Women

People from this region are often portrayed as taciturn, but the illustrations of these stern women are enough to scare away small impressionable children.


Some of the traditional homestyle recipes were a revelation to my mother and me. Over the years, we’ve tried some of the more unusual ones, but we drew the line at frogs and chamois.


illustration: Manuela Busetti

The editors weren’t much interested in food photography, opting instead for illustrations with props such as cats hovering near the polenta.

The trigger for revisiting the cookbook is that popular inner Sydney wine bar – 121BC Cantina & Enoteca will be holding a pop-up event in late July based on recipes from four of the Italy in Bocca series. Dishes will be produced by the talented PinBone collective who are obviously huge fans of the books too. Can’t wait to see what curiosities they serve up.

%d bloggers like this: