Russian Potato Salad
(The Nosher via JTA) -- Certain rituals and traditions that are fixtures in the annals of your life simply mean something by virtue of their existence. For me, the traditions that hold the most weight almost always have to do with food. My family came to this country from the former Soviet Union in the late ’70s. New Year’s was the biggest holiday of the year in the U.S.S.R. for all people, including Jews. For post-Soviet Jewish immigrant families around the world New Year’s, or Novy God, is still one of the most important holidays of the year. Traditionally, there’s feasting, dancing, music, the gathering of family and friends, and often you’ll find a New Year’s tree, too. That tree is not to be confused with the exactly identical-appearing Christmas tree. Yes, even my grandparents had a New Year’s tree during my childhood. Like many other Soviet Jews they didn’t know it as anything other than an entirely secular joyous winter tradition. I remember having to keep the fact that we had a tree a secret. This was before the term “Hanukkah Bush” became a thing, and I knew enough from attending Jewish day school to recognize that Jews having a tree in their home might be taboo.
The tree wasn’t ever as important as the food we ate. My grandmother loved to make a four course meal, and the first course featured a variety of salads, smoked fish and red caviar. I can’t remember a first course New Year’s feast without Salad Olivier on our table. Salad Olivier, or Russian Potato Salad, is an extremely popular Russian dish, and it is nearly synonymous with Novy God. You’ll be hard pressed to find a Soviet-style New Year’s celebration without it. While it’s considered celebratory, the salad is made with humble ingredients: boiled potatoes and carrots, peas, pickles, hard-boiled egg, mayonnaise and often some kind of meat like a Mortadella or smoked ham.
The salad was first prepared by Lucien Olivier in the 1860s. Olivier was the French chef of a famous restaurant in Moscow called The Hermitage; hence the very French name for this now popular Russian salad. Also, Russians were obsessed with French culture at that time. Salad Olivier was an immediate hit, and it became the restaurant’s signature dish. Originally, it was made with crayfish, capers and even grouse. After the revolution, simpler and easier-to-come-by ingredients were more commonly adapted into the recipe. These ingredients are also all conveniently available in the dead of winter.
The popularity of the salad spread beyond Russia to Eastern Europe, the Balkans and even to Iran and Pakistan. In fact, in our family we call this dish Salad de Boeuf (pronounced as “de beff”), which is what this salad is inexplicably called in Romania and Western Ukraine. Boeuf means “beef” in French, and this salad contains no beef at all. In each geographic locale, the salad might differ slightly. Sometimes the potatoes are mashed instead of cubed, or there’s shredded chicken instead of smoked meat, or sometimes there’s no meat at all, as was the custom in our family. What makes this type of potato salad uniquely a Salad Olivier is the presence of potatoes combined with carrots, peas, pickles and hard-boiled eggs. Everything should be chopped to roughly the same size. The appeal of something seemingly odd and vaguely average is ultimately mysterious, but the combination of hearty firm potatoes, sweet cooked carrots, crisp pickles, earthy peas and silky eggs in a creamy tangy dressing just works. The ingredients meld together, each losing its own particular edge to combine to make a complete range of salty, sweet, tangy, satisfying tastes in each bite. I think this salad’s enduring and far-reaching popularity proves that it’s eaten for more than tradition’s sake.
If you’re going to attempt to make this for the first time there are a few things to know. For one, this recipe reflects how my family likes this dish. If you’ve had this before, it might be slightly different from what you’re used to. More importantly, the quality of each ingredient matters to the overall success of the dish. I like to use Yukon Gold potatoes because they hold up well and have a pleasant rich sweetness, but you can definitely try it with your favorite potatoes. Taste the carrots before you cook them; they should be sweet and flavorful, not the dull astringent variety you sometimes find in the supermarket. The best pickles for this dish are ones that come from the refrigerator section, that still have a crunch, and are brined in salt with zero vinegar added. They’re also known as “naturally fermented” pickles. The type of mayonnaise you use is also key, and I swear by Hellmann’s/Best Foods.
While our family assimilated to American life in all kinds of ways and happily observed all of the Jewish holidays, celebrating New Year’s was an unspoken honoring of our past. My family loves America; they are proud they could come here and offer their children a better life, which included being able to be openly Jewish and free from religious persecution. And yet, there will always be a meaningful connection to their place of origin, particularly to the food they ate as children, and to a life that formed their identity. Whether we acknowledge that or not, or even fully realize it, eating Salad Olivier at the new year offers that link to our past.