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Reminiscing the Russian Salad

Once the mainstay of a formal buffet and the charm of wedding feast, the Russian innovated-French propagated dish may not hold CenterStage today, but that does little to downplay the brilliance and addictiveness of this unique salad.

By Madhulika Dash; Photograph courtesy Stock Images

If there is one dish, says seasoned culinary consultant and archiever Chef Nimish Bhatia, “that means ‘nostalgia’ in bold for any chef, it is the Russian Salad. Ask anyone (at least in and around my batch for sure) to make the Belgian origin dish, and there are happy memories floating around. It was in fact one of the first few French dishes that we were supposed to perfect in IHM, and even spent our first few years in making it for not just the breakfast and high tea, but mostly for the banquet too.”

So much so, adds culinary revivalist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, “that it is the first Continental dish that we take fancy to, understand and even enjoy making and eating. Honestly.” Incidentally, for both the chefs the dish still holds the same fascination as it was when it was first taught to them as second year students, the only difference, points Chef Bhatia, “is perhaps now we would like to make and experience the original Oliver Salad – the dish that not just created the Russian Salad, but also became the muse to over a 1000 plus recipes that are flooded in the market today.”

Concurs brand specialist Zamir Khan, whose first introduction to the 50s favourite wasn’t in hospitality college but at his home – and “the Army Officers’ Mess Party. Recalls Khan, “For a generous part of my growing up years, this mayo-vegetable treat was perhaps the only way we did have vegetables without complaining. It was our definition of the kids’ menu and was a must-have if the party spread had dinner rolls, soups, butter and roast chicken and cold sandwiches.”

Such was the popularity of the salad, says life and parenting coach Monalisa Kar, “that as kids we would often vie for the role of the chief mixer – essentially the one who would put together the measured in coffee mug's ingredients and then slather it with a generous helping of homemade mayonnaise.” It was the only way, she adds, “one could get to be the first taster- a privilege that as kids we would show off to our friends and those coming over for dinner at our place.”

Years later, Kar in fact discovered the beauty of this no-recipe salad that, she says, “would be the magic wand to have my kids have vegetables, toast and even the most important side dish that would urge them to have the mains.” For Khan though, the Russian Salad, albeit common, remained a treat that could have had when out on a holiday, given that the dish was a part of the standard menu across the armed forces’ Mess much like custard, bread pudding and of course the good old jelly.”

The best part, recalls Chef Gorai, “is that in spite of the salad’s recipe - at least the one that the French finally standardised and got to India and the hospitality schools adopted - was a far, far, far cry from the original, meat-heavy Oliver Salad designed by celebrity Belgian Chef Lucien Olivier for the rich and famous patrons of his restaurant. It did little to dimmish the brilliance of the creation, both for aesthetics as well as all-palate appeal. A fact that further earns credence from the fact that in the nearly 160 years of Russian Salad's existence, which earned that moniker only when the French chefs adopted it and made it a part of their colonial food journey, the sauce combination of mayonnaise, mustard, salt and pepper has rarely changed.”

In fact, adds Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Kolkata), “the few things that we did differently is perhaps making the dish completely vegetarian, dicing the vegetable in biteable sizes and eventually after years of using the French Mustard, turning to our desi variety to give that extra punch of taste.”

A made-on-demand dish even today – “guest often demand it for breakfast or when they are having the soup and dinner roll, says Chef Dewan- the popularity of Russian Salad, he continues, “was largely courtesy the railways that designed their coleslaw sandwich based on this salad. In fact, back in the early 60s and 70s, it was very much part of the tea menu where a generous spoonful was given on toast, which eventually for kids was made into a sandwich or even a stuffed dinner roll. Since it was cold, it survived the journey well.”

Agrees Chef Bhatia, who saw it as a major breakfast highlight back in the day when breakfast in hotels were usually heavy in continental food – and with expat chefs mostly running the show, “Russian Salad was the order of the day, and a good salad, which mostly would heavily rely on the quality of the mayo made was the highlight.” It wasn’t till the mid-90s that Russian Salad had shifted from the hero of the continental spread to the star of the banquet events. “It was practically showcased as one of the high points of the salad spread – and it really worked,” recalls the chefs, who found it as an exceptionally clever method of creating popular dishes from nothing.

Fascinatingly, adds Chef Gorai, “in its close to a century existence in India, the salad, which is said to be introduced by the French and popularised by the British in India, during which time it earned the moniker Russi Salad that ultimately became Russian Salad, the dish has not only had a range of interesting, indigenised recipes, but also laid the foundation that allowed Indian chefs to adopt a lot of such cream-based dishes to the Indian palate. One such example is the cole slaw that we have in sandwiches sold in the trains; another of course is our very desi take on the cucumber sandwich or even the vegetable sandwiches and 70s inspired hot dog (vegetarian, if you would please).”

It was, adds Chef Dewan, “literally our magical hat that allowed us the liberty to experiment and in dire needs (which kitchens have a lot) reach out to to create something that was dazzling yet loved by the diner. One such version that was popular back in the 80s was the prawn salad, which often then did not use the Russian Salad as the magical base.”

Incidentally, the creation of the Russian Salad back in the 1860s by Chef Olivier wasn’t much far from the prawn salad wonder. The first iteration, which the legendary Belgian chef is said to have created after watching his diners polish off a food art piece that was made of vegetables and mayo, was a mix of the food tower he made. It was only once its popularity was ascertained that the chef designed the first salad, which is said to have tongue, potatoes, chicken, egg, venison along with a mix of fresh produce all laced with good quality mayo, flavoured with mustard, salt and pepper. In fact, the recipe that was published in A Guide to the Study of the Foundations of Culinary Arts in 1897 called for the generous use of potatoes; though the popular version around that time was made with boiled ham, boiled carrots, boiled peas, boiled eggs and pickles – not the sweet ones but gherkins! The Escoffier’s 1903 version called for lobster, truffles and caviar, which, say the culinary experts, “was again one of the many versions of the dish since Olivier never shared the original recipe with anyone.”

While little is known of the recipe that came to India with the French or the British, both took a liking to the Belgian brilliance much like Tsar Alexander II who is said to be one of the royal patrons of the dish, chances are that the version was a take on the Stolichny Salad (Capital Salad) created by one of Chef Olivier’s sous-chef called Ivan Ivanov as part of Moskva’s menu, thus earning the name, “Moscow Salad’. Many believe, says Chef Gorai, “it was this version that not only became popular but also was taught to young chefs breaking into the food world. The reason was its simplicity. Unlike the grandeur of Olivier Salad – a New Year special these days in Russia – the Stolichny Salad called for regular ingredients like carrot, peas, cooked Doktorskaya sausage, boiled chicken and such, which made it easy on the palate – and a dish that homemaker’s could innovate on.”

In fact, adds Chef Bhatia, “the Indian version, at least the one that we were taught in college, falls around the dish created by Chef Ivanov as it calls for Carrots, beans, potatoes, pineapple or apples, peas, mayo, hint of sugar-salt, pepper-mustard and parsley. Of course, the fruit is our contribution, and so is the addition of a vegetarian mayo.”

The brilliance of the Russian Salad and of Chef Olivier stems from the fact that even when both the world wars brought a blanket ban to the creation (and consumption) of this popular New Year special, when it was time for business to get back, Russian Salad became the one dish that revved up the move. In colonies of course, it was, ends Khan, “it was the food that defined class.”