Tricky Stuff: Salad Olivieh

photo from will-you-look-at-thatblogspot.com

photo from will-you-look-at-thatblogspot.com

For the longest time I though Salad Oliveh was  Persian dish, and strongly resisted any suggestion to the contrary – those impostors!  I could not wrap my mind around the possibility that it might be a popular dish to most of the world, and by sheer luck I stumbled across it as an adult.  I swear this dish changed my perspective on potato salad forever.  I never thought I claim a life transforming experience because of a potato salad, but there it is.  My Persian friend, Sepideh, invited me for lunch with her grandmother who was also visiting.  Her grandmother spoke little English, and I spoke less Persian.  Ok, I spoke no Persian, and my subsequent attempts have been mixed.  They prepared a wonderful repast of all sorts of tasty dishes, a few that I had never tried before; one of which was Salad Oliveh.

I took a small portion to accompany the rest of my meal, and had to go back for seconds…thirds.  I am deeply ashamed to admit that I stopped counting after five return visits.  I could not help myself, I was possessed by some potato fever and lost self control and self respect.  It was that good.  I apologized to Sepideh for my lack of will power, but she just grinned and said her grandmother took it as a compliment.  I certainly hope so.  She did looked pleased, but I did not know if she was just humoring me.  When I was ready to leave, I brazenly demanded the recipe.  I have since made this dish countless times, and I will keep making it.  While it is always delicious, it is never equal what Sepideh’s grandmother prepared that day.  She had magic in her fingers, but I am determined to replicate that incredible dish she made.

another version of Russian Salad from PBase.com

another version of Russian Salad from PBase.com

As I learned that other regions of the world had been claiming this salad as their own for as long as or longer than Iran, I was determined to learn more.  Unfortunately desire for knowledge does not always lead to clarity, and I appeared to have opened a can of worms.

Many Alias

Olivia Salad is also known as Olivier Salad, Salade Olivier, Salat Olivier, Salad Olivieh, and several other variations, and perhaps most famously as Russian Salad.

I’ve seen a number of versions, but the core ingredients are:

  • potatoes
  • chicken
  • peas
  • dill pickles (not the sweet kind)
  • mayonnaise

The optional ingredients seem limited only by the chef’s imagination but include:

  • sour cream
  • anchovies
  • aspic jelly
  • ham
  • mushrooms
  • cucumbers
  • sweet corn
  • beets
  • cavier
  • onions
  • bologna
  • cucumbers
  • green olives
  • capers
  • carrots

Russian Salad is one of the world’s most famous side dishes. What is not so widely known is that the dish served has nothing whatever to do with Russia, and the story of its origins is even more murky.

A potato salad conundrum

Version 1

image from wblo.com

Czar Nicholas II image from wblo.com

A Frenchman, Jacques Olivier, created this dish.  He hailed from Dijon, France and served as a chef for Czar Nicholas II.  Unlike his less fortunate employer, the chef escaped from Russia and opened a restaurant in Wiesbaden, Germany and it was there that he invented the dish that he named “salade a la Russe” in honor of his former employer.  But wait, he was not a one hit wonder, other dishes credited to him include Beef Stroganoff and Salad Bagration, although in what appears to be a running theme, other sources disagree.

I did a bit of research on the claims of the other two dishes, and I found that several Russian chefs claimed credit for Beef Stroganoff, and while it is entirely possible Jacques Olivier deserves credit, other are competing for the title.   For example, the Russians typically attach the names of famous households to their cuisine, and this dish is no exception. Count Pavel Stroganov, a noted 19th century gourmet, friend of Alexander III and a regular celebrity in turn-of-the-century St. Petersburg is often credited with creating Beef Stroganoff or, more likely, having his chef develop it.

Salad Bagration, the name is from a Russian general who died fighting Napoleon (he was known more as a gourmand than as a soldier, or to put it another way, he was obviously a lover and not a fighter) and one source identifies the creator of this dish as none other than Alexandre Dumas.  As evidence, apparently of his fondness for food, other dishes are named after him such as Potage (Soup) Bagration, and a dish of Sole.

Version 2 – another French suspect

Not accurate, but my image of dining - Russian Tea Room NYC (photo from bizbash.com)

Not accurate, but my image of dining during that period – Russian Tea Room NYC (photo from bizbash.com)

As I try to verify my sources, where I expected to find cohesion, confusion flourished.  Crap.  I really wanted a straightforward story.   French chef, a Lucien Oliver, opened the popular restaurant in the 1880s called The Ermitage in Moscow.  Apparently the salad he served was so popular that it was included with every meal, and became the restaurant’s signature dish.

The recipe, specifically the dressing, was jealously guarded.  However, known ingredients included grouse, veal tongue, caviar, lettuce, crayfish tails, capers, gherkins (dill pickles), cucumbers, hard-boiled eggs and soy beans. Other reported ingredients included truffles, cubed aspic and smoked duck, and some speculate that the recipe was varied seasonally.  The original Olivier dressing was a type of mayonnaise, made with French wine vinegar, mustard, and Provenςal olive oil; its exact recipe, however, was taken to the grave by M. Oliver.

Ivan the Terrible not Ivan Ivanov (image by chewednews.com0

Ivan the Terrible not Ivan Ivanov (image by chewednews.com)

Around the turn of the 20th century, one of Olivier’s sous-chefs, Ivan Ivanov, tried to steal the recipe. While preparing the dressing one evening, in solitude as was his custom, Olivier was abruptly called away on an emergency.  Taking advantage of the opportunity, Ivanov crept into Olivier’s private kitchen and based on the mise en place, made some assumptions regarding Oliver’s famous dressing recipe.  Ivanov quickly left Olivier’s employ to work as a chef for Moskva, a somewhat inferior restaurant, where he served a suspiciously similar salad under the name “The Capital Salad”.  Gourmands, of the time, reported however, that the dressing on the Moskva salad was of lesser quality than Olivier’s; translated: it was “missing something”.

Later, Ivanov sold the recipe for the salad to various publishing houses, which further contributed to its popularity. Due to the closure of the Ermitage (or Hermitage) restaurant in 1905 and the Olivier family’s departure from Russia, the salad became known as “Olivier”.  As inevitably happens with gourmet recipes that become popularized, those of the salad’s ingredients that were rare, expensive, seasonal, or difficult to prepare were replaced with cheaper and more readily available foods, until it evolved into the dish we know today.

Version 3 – funny math where 1+1 = 1

In my research, I am not entirely convinced that Jacques Olivier and Lucien Oliver are different people.  I read a few accounts that described the creator of this salad as a French chef who first worked at a famous French restaurant in Moscow, before moving on the employ of Czar Nicholas II.

Where We’re At today

Finally, I hate to break it to you, but the modern version of Russian Salad, or Salad Oliveh, if Version 2 or 3 are to be believed, is based on the stolen recipe that the conniving Ivanov developed.  Everything I read states that Lucien Oliver never divulged the recipe for his incredible salad.  The secret, he took to his grave.  So the version, we’ve come to know and love is but a pale substitute of the original Salad Oliver with none of the heady ingredients sampled in the original.

photo from utexas.edu

photo from utexas.edu

This version was a staple of any Soviet Russian holiday dinner, especially of a New Year dinner, due to availability of ingredients in the winter. Even though more exotic foods are widely available in Russia now, its popularity has not diminished.  Russian cooking has influenced the popularity of the salad in Bulgaria, which has its own version of ruska salad, usually consisting of potatoes, carrots, peas, pickles and some sort of salami or ham. It remains popular in Iran, where chicken is often added to the recipe. Because of some French influence on Spanish cuisine, it is also popular Spain (where it is called ensaladilla rusa, a popular summer dish) typically consisting of carrots, canned tuna, eggs, peas, roast red pepper strips, green olives, potato and mayonnaise.  The Belgian’s have their own adaption of Russian Salad, made in the Ardennes region, specifically in Malmedy and other municipalities, and calls for potatoes, herrings in vinegar, red beets, celeriac, and apples.

Anya von Bremzen past restaurant critic, and now contributing editor for Travel & Leisure magazine, hails from Moscow and finds that Russian Salad is more popular in South America than even her homeland.  This version is from Argentina.  A few of my fellow South American food bloggers confirmed its popularity.  Lori from FakeFoodFree offered this recipe from Brazil and the similarities are apparent.  To me, the appeal, upon learning more about the dish, is that it lends itself to whatever the cook has on had and wants to adapt.  Its truly become a global recipe on par with curry.  So while I may have to learn to call it Salad Oliver as opposed to Salad Oliveh or Russian Salad, I am content to know I can get my hands on it much more readily that I first believed.

Sephideh’s Salad Oliveh

4 servings

Ingredients

4 eggs – hard boiled, peeled and finely chopped
5T olive oil
2 c mayonnaise
1½ c finely chopped dill pickles
2 chicken breasts, poached, cooled and shredded
4 large potatoes, boiled and finely chopped
1 small can green peas
juice of 2 lemons
salt and pepper

Directions

Mix well.  I find that making this dish a day ahead of time improves the flavor.

While I failed in my goal to find the true origins of this dish, I am more than happy to speculate with a plate of this tasty stuff in hand.   Thank you, Sepideh, for introducing me to yet another wonderful Persian culinary experience. I shudder to think that I might have gone through life without having tasted this delicious concoction.  For the record, despite my general dismal attempt to pronounce just about any other word in Persian, I apparently say “Salad Olivieh” like a native and have been asked if I speak Persian.  Yup, all of two words.

Update me when site is updated

28 comments for “Tricky Stuff: Salad Olivieh

  1. September 1, 2009 at 2:57 PM

    Now, that it has worked its way around the globe, I think this salad would be great at a Labor Day cook out! I love a dill pickly potato salad, and this sounds delicious.

  2. September 1, 2009 at 3:04 PM

    Although one of its name is Russian Salad, we have it in our cuisine, too. It is so common that we can say it’s a part of Turkish cuisine now. The ingredients of ours are a bit different, though. We don’t put egg and chicken in it. Boiled and chopped potatoes, small green peas, carrot and dill pickles are all combined well with mayonnaise and strained yogurt. I can even have it at breakfast, spreading on a slice of bread.
    And altough it’s so common here, I didn’t know anything on its history. Thanks for this great informative post again!

  3. September 1, 2009 at 4:19 PM

    I’ve never heard of this salad! How delicious you make it sound going back for the fifth time! This is going on my to-do list!

  4. September 1, 2009 at 4:34 PM

    If funny to find out where certain dishes get their origin from and who fights to keep the title of where it was invented. This seems like a well travelled dish. By the looks of it, this seems like something I would love. Yum!!

  5. September 1, 2009 at 9:28 PM

    I’m with your version 3 :) Of course, as you can imagine, this has been the favorite salad of my childhood! We used to make it with a Russian bologna but now I make it with ham. It was probably one of the first dishes I learned how to make as a child!

  6. September 1, 2009 at 10:19 PM

    Can I have mine with a big, BIG dollop of caviar? 😉

  7. September 2, 2009 at 5:54 AM

    I love foods with history. Though I don’t understand not sharing recipes and taking them to your grave!

  8. admin
    September 2, 2009 at 7:56 AM

    Lisa – it is the perfect addition to a Labor Day picnic. Hope you enjoy your holiday weekend.
    Zerrin – I’d seen a few Turkish Russian Salad recipes and they all looked delicious. I’m with you, I could eat it for any meal. I like the addition of yogurt.
    Reeni- it is indeed tasty!
    Jenn- well traveled to be sure, I think you’d love it and I’d be curious to see your spin on this dish.
    Natasha – I think I mentioned previously that I am fortunate to have an array of Russian and Eastern European markets close by, I am going to have to pick up some bologna and try your version.
    Caroyln – I’m with you, yum caviar.
    Gastro – I agree – in a way it kinda does not feel right that salad is named after him and yet he had no real input into the recipe. A stolen glance at his mise en pise?

  9. September 2, 2009 at 8:30 AM

    I’ve never heard of this salad! It’s so interesting to discover where dishes originate. You do such a fantastic job of keeping me informed! I think I would love this!

  10. September 2, 2009 at 10:51 AM

    This salad is very popular all over Colombia and South America “Ensalada Rusa”. Delicious! Great info as usual!

  11. September 2, 2009 at 11:33 AM

    Learned something new today! That was all really interesting background info.

  12. September 2, 2009 at 1:50 PM

    I have neither heard of this salad or eaten it. I have both Persian and Russian friends. Have they been holding out on me? GREG

  13. September 2, 2009 at 4:48 PM

    Very interesting the history behind Salad Oliveh! I know it as Russian Salad :)
    Lot of work to compile this info thanks for sharing!

    Cheers!

    Gera

  14. Molly
    September 3, 2009 at 4:55 AM

    I just came across this post when searching for the recipe!

    My local cafe (owned by a lovely Turkish couple) make it and I’m addicted to it. So much so that I’ve been sending my boyfriend to get it as take away because I’m in there so much it’s become embarassing.

    I thought it was just me who was a Olivieh addict. Glad to hear there are others!

  15. admin
    September 3, 2009 at 6:52 PM

    Lisa – thanks for the compliments. This dish is awesome, and I can’t help but think you would love it.

    Erica – I’d love to check out your version some time. Now that I know there are so many variations I really want to explore.

    Duo – I agree

    Sippity – I hate to break it to you but they’ve been holding out. I’d confront them immediately.

    Gera – Thanks – it was a lot of fun. As you can tell, I love this dish.

    Molly – I sense a kindred spirit here. It does get embarrassing after a while, but theres no hope, when you have to have your salad oliveh, you just have to have it.

  16. September 4, 2009 at 8:25 AM

    So interesting to read about more Russian influences in Brazil. First the Stroganoff and now this. Maionese, as it is called here, is definitely a descendant of the Russian salad by what you’ve explained and pictured here. We really enjoy it as well. For us, it’s a much tastier version of the potato salads we eat in the US.

  17. September 5, 2009 at 2:17 AM

    This dish is incredibly popular in Portugal too and its called salada russa.
    Its a mix of potatoes, peas, carrots, egg, mayonnaise and…wait for it, lol, Canned tuna!!!

    Thanks so much for the info. Great reading, as always and very funny too. Going to have to try that recipe :)

  18. September 5, 2009 at 8:44 PM

    I seriously love your blog. I learn SO many things I never would have otherwise. Because of you, I’m sounding way smarter. Thanks! 😀

  19. September 7, 2009 at 12:07 AM

    This looks stunning!! Am I going to have to change my opinion on German Potato Salad?? I will tell you soon! Once again, your post is beautifully written and so well researched. Well done!

  20. September 7, 2009 at 4:01 AM

    This looks superb!! Thanks for all of that information!!

    That is whyn I gave you an award!! Please come over @ my blog & pick it up!! Why? You can read it there,… Congrats!

  21. admin
    September 7, 2009 at 7:06 PM

    Lori – sounds very intriquing the connection, I sense the need for further research =)

    Ruth – thank for the added info on the Portugese version. It would be fun to map the influence and how the flavors change from one country to another. Alas I am not that talented yet.

    Sophia – ah, thanks!

    Crystal – Keep an open mind, that’s all I’m asking, because I well understand the appeal of genuine German Potato salad.

    Sophie – thanks for the compliments and thanks for the award!

    Christine – ah, thank you so much and hopefully you’re finding the time to relax a bit amid all the activity.

  22. September 8, 2009 at 2:30 PM

    Very entertaining reading about your search for the origins of this dish. I bookmarked Sephideh’s recipe as soon as I read that you went back for fifths! I’ll eat this no matter what it’s called or where it’s from :)

  23. September 9, 2009 at 10:01 AM

    Wow, I also have not heard of this… Though those pics are too pretty…I would not have the courage to be the first to dip into it! Artwork at its best…

  24. May 5, 2010 at 6:06 PM

    LOVED this post and the history behind the salad. There is definitely no way to just have one or two servings of this salad, one keeps on going back for more!!!

  25. admin
    May 5, 2010 at 7:25 PM

    Phyllis – Do, its fantastic, but don’t say you weren’t warned

    Chef E – Put all thoughts of art work aside and dig in – you will not be disappointed.

    MPK – Thanks, that means a lot, and I agree, I always go hungry so as to enjoy this salad even more – still a favorite!

  26. Kathia Regina Sanson Coutinho
    March 23, 2013 at 4:44 PM

    Essa receita me foi transmitida como receita de família (aproximadamente 60 anos) sempre questionei minha mãe se esta não seria a famosa receita da salada russa. Após a leitura de seu texto, achei algumas semelhanças, a maionese feita em casa (ovos, vinagre, azeite, salsinha e hoje acrescento 1 dente de alho e 1 colher de chá de mostarda dijon, a batata, a cenoura, a vagem e acreditem, minha mãe adicionava à mistura de legumes salcicha em conserva (embutido de carne). Através de seu texto identifiquei as semelhanças das receitas e afirmo que a receita que aprendi é diferente das demais comumente feitas aqui no Brasil. Normalmente não misturam embutidos ou defumados nas saladas de maionese, é somente legumes. Agora vou experimentar acrescentar alcaparras. Só para esclarecer, sou descendente de germanicos, italianos e brasileiros.

  27. OysterCulture
    March 23, 2013 at 4:55 PM

    Hi Kathia, first I took the liberty of translating your comment from Portuguese to English so that I could better respond (Apologies in advance as you wrote much more fluently than reflected here:

    This recipe i was given as the income of families (60 years) when I asked my mother if it would not be the famous recipe of Russian salad. After reading your text, I found some similarities, the homemade mayonnaise (eggs, vinegar, olive oil, parsley) and today I added 1 clove of garlic and 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard, the potato, a carrot, the pod and believe me, my mother added to the mixture of vegetables and salcicha canned (flush of meat).

    Wow, this recipe you shared sounds like a true family treasure. You are right, many similarities exist between this version and the recipes that I found. We planted some potatoes and I think this recipe would be a good way to celebrate our bounty. Thank you for sharing!

  28. July 4, 2013 at 2:30 AM

    “Salad Bagration, the name is from a Russian general who died fighting Napoleon (he was known more as a gourmand than as a soldier, or put it another way, he was obviously a lover and not a fighter)[…]” or “Roastbeef Wellington, the name is from an English general who fought Napoleon (he was known more as a gourmand than as a soldier, or put it another way, he was obviously a lover and not a fighter).”
    😉

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