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.
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.
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:
- dill pickles (not the sweet kind)
The optional ingredients seem limited only by the chef’s imagination but include:
- sour cream
- aspic jelly
- sweet corn
- green olives
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
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
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.
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.
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 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
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.