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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.

insalataRussa

Image: Marco Salvo/NonnaPeppa.com

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.

LiberaceCooks

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.

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12 comments

  1. We are from Trieste and mother always made Insalata Russa on special occasions. I loved the stuff. The secret was the mayo as you said and the way you cooked the veggies. On the other hand my wife is Russian, they have their version of IR, which includes meats and no where near enough mayo. Pickled cucumbers are also a must. It’s not bad but not as good as mums. Next what about gnocchi de gries?


    • Hi Gino. Agree, a good insalata russa is a joy to behold. And yes, it needs lots of good, home-made mayonnaise. Mmmm, gnocchi de gries … haven’t made these for a while. Will put on the ‘to-do’ list. Thanks for your comments.


  2. It’s so interesting that a simple dish has so much history to it…and here in America we just call it…Potato Salad:)


    • That’s what makes some cuisine’s dishes so intriguing. I think the stories behind them add to the pleasure of eating.


  3. I SO need the Liberace cook book! Please pass the insalata russa and then the vitello tonnato… 🙂 great post…


    • Thanks signor Bianchi. Yes, vitello tonnato on my mind too. I think both Liberace’s cookbooks (including ‘Cooking with Liberace’) have the insalata russa recipe. Available online, although the price might have skyrocketed after the film release.


  4. I never understood insalata russa, but maybe I never had a good one – and possibly not since 1978. You have inspired me to give it a try – I think the Liberace version has potential – beet root is an inspired addition to the usual peas, carrots & potatoes


    • I’ve had plenty of bad ones in my time, some truly horrible. Unfortunately beetroot is my least favourite vegetable so I won’t be trying Lee’s version, but am interested to know whether it produces a pink tinted salad.


  5. Um a bit OTT although I love beetroot and may consider a simpler version. Will let you know if the beetroot produces a pink tinted salad; I suspect it does.


    • Yes, let me know if you end up with fuschia Dianne!


  6. “Twenty six days of buffet table bliss.” – I love that! I went on a cruise a couple of years ago but I didn’t see any Russian Salad. I REALLY want to try this now – I am a big fan of beetroot so it may well be pink!


    • Oh yes, please try it. Dying to see how you present it on ‘Silver Screen Suppers’. Good luck.



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