Olivier Salad - Russian comfort food for the holidays.

Olivier Salad: A Russian Holiday Tradition

Published: August 5, 2018

Салат «Оливье» (Olivier Salad) is a salad for which the recipe can vary widely, but which is typically made from chopped vegetables and meat in a mayonnaise base.

Invented in Moscow, the salad is now popular throughout the countries of the former Soviet Union and beyond. In places like Turkey, Iran, and Greece, it is eaten and often known as “Russian Salad” (Русский салат). In Russia, it is synonymous with holiday celebrations – traditionally made for New Year’s and nearly any other major event involving a large family meal.

Почему так называется?

According to one legend, the salad is named Оливье (Olivier), because it was first made for the actor Sir Lawrence Olivier. The legend is absolutely false, but is a good way to remember how to pronounce the salad’s name: оливье is pronounced in Russian and English the same as the legendary actor’s name.

The actual history is that the salad was invented in the 1860s and named for its creator, chef Lucien Olivier. This Belgian (who may have been originally French), ran a Parisian-style restaurant in Moscow called “Hermitage.”

The salad made his elite establishment one of the Russian capital’s most talked about and frequented establishments. Оливье ревностно хранил рецепт как коммерческую тайну (Olivier carefully guarded the recipe as a trade secret), always preparing it himself – and in fact took the recipe to his grave.

It survived via two derived sources. Один рецепт был украден работником кухни (One version was stolen by an employee) who was able to sneak a look at the work station while the great chef was called away. Другой рецепт был создан одним из постоянных посетителей ресторана (Another was developed by one of the restaurant’s regulars) who sought a way to keep the salad going after the chef was gone.

Как правильно готовить салат «Оливье»?

Месье Оливье (Monsieur Olivier) might be comforted (or terrified) to learn that the salad of today that still bears his name bears little resemblance to his original masterpiece.

The birthplace of Olivier Salad. The Hermitage Restaurant as shown in a 19th-century postcard.

Салат «Оливье» was originally called «Майонез из дичи» (“Game Bird Mayonnaise”). It was made with a series of gourmet ingredients including black caviar and capers, layered together with steamed game hen, and bound in layers of jellied broth. Boiled crayfish tails and pieces of tongue were arranged around the edges of the dish and it was served covered with a small amount of fresh Provencal Sauce made from olive oil, egg yolks, French vinegar, mustard, and spices. A potato skin with gherkins and slices of boiled eggs decorated the center of the dish.

However, most Russian customers, Olivier noticed, would immediately mix the layers and garnish together and eat the mush thus created with a spoon. Будучи шокированным, но желая угодить клиентам, предприимчивый повар начал подавать свой салат перемешанным и густо политым соусом (Shocked, but willing to accommodate, the enterprising chef started serving his salad mixed together and bound in sauce rather than covered in it). This is also when the name changed to Салат «Оливье».

Современную версию блюда было бы правильно называть «советским оливье» (The modern version of the dish could properly be called “Soviet Olivier”). During the Soviet period, ингредиенты салата начали изменяться, поскольку некоторые из них стали недоступны (the salad’s ingredients began to change as certain ingredients became rarer) in the planned economy or were deemed too bourgeois for the Soviet society.

What a portion of 19th century Olivier may have looked like. Recreated by restoran.ru

The caviar was dropped and the capers replaced with peas. Рябчиков заменили курицей или ветчиной (The game hen was substituted with chicken or ham). Then, as fresh meat became rarer, boiled meats and then sausage became the norm. Gherkins were replaced by more common pickles. Alternately, поскольку майонез можно было купить в любом магазине (as mayonnaise became available in stores), homemade Provence sauce was replaced with store-bought mayonnaise.

With these rapid mutations, by the late Soviet period, «Оливье» became a term applied to many diverse salads, whether it was made from canned fish, chicken, crab pieces, or other ingredients. For many, it became a way to prepare a small amount of менее доступных ингредиентов (rarer ingredients) such as meats or seafood with those that were более доступными (more commonly available) such as potatoes and mayonnaise.

Под названием «Оливье» большинство россиян сегодня представляют «классическую советскую» версию (Most Russians today will picture a “classic soviet” version of the salad) if asked to describe it. This version includes potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, peas, pickles and bologna, all in equal amounts, mixed with enough mayonnaise to bind the ingredients well.

Most often, any recipe for Салат «Оливье» that deviates from this short list of ingredients will be termed «Оливье с …» (“Olivier with…”) to indicate what unique element the recipe offers.

Все ингредиенты режут на мелкие кубики, размером примерно с горошину (all ingredients should be finely cubed into pieces about the size of a pea.)

Some chefs recommend a return to the use of Provencal sauce, or at least by adding mustard, vinegar, and a little olive oil to the mayonnaise before adding it to salad.

Marinated pickles (rather than salted pickles) are preferred. Some chefs also recommend replacing about a third of the pickles with fresh cucumbers “чтобы добавить салату свежесть” (to add “freshness” to the salad).

While the recipe is generally and historically flexible, most Russian chefs insist that adding carrots is heresy. This has likely arisen because another salad, Салат «Столичный» is usually made with carrots and is otherwise basically identical to Салат «Оливье».

Incidentally, Салат «Столичный» is descended directly from the recipe stolen by Monsieur Olivier’s former employee. The thief rebranded it with that name. Оба рецепта пережили схожие изменения в ходе своей истории (Both recipes then went through similar changes as they lived out similar histories).

Как правильно есть салат «Оливье»?

The logo from 2009-2010 production of Olivier Show.

The symbolic meaning of Салат «Оливье» in Russian cuisine is significant, perhaps most comparable with stuffing in America. Так же, как многие американцы не могут представить себе День Благодарения без хлебного соуса, большинство россиян не представляют себе Новый Год без салата «Оливье». (Much like most Americans could not imagine a Thanksgiving without stuffing, most Russians could not imagine a New Year’s without Olivier Salad.) It often shares the table with another holiday staple salad – Селёдка под шубой (Herring under a Fur Coat).

Первый канал (First Channel), Russia’s most watched television channel, has even capitalized on this by christening its annual New Year’s variety show, which shows animation, songs, and sketch comedy all night, as «Оливье-шоу» (The Olivier Show). This show usually plays without commercial breaks – but with regular plugs for a general sponsor. In the past, this sponsor has often been, amusingly, a mayonnaise company.

Давай Приготовим!

See below for a free recipe for various Russian Olivier salads. You might also be interested in the following specialized cookbooks we’ve enjoyed:

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Салат Оливье («советский» вариант) Olivier Salad (“Soviet” version)
Ингредиенты

  • картофель (отварить и почистить)
  • консервированный зелёный горошек
  • солёные огурцы
  • докторская колбаса
  • яйца варёные
  • майонез

*Все ингредиенты берутся в равных частях

Приготовление

Ингредиенты нарезать мелкими кубиками. Заправить майонезом. Добавьте по вкусу соль, перец, и свежий укроп, если надо.

Ingredients

  • Potatoes (boiled and peeled)
  • Canned green peas
  • Pickles
  • Bologna
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Mayonnaise

*All ingredients are used in equal amounts

Preparation

Chop up all the ingredients into small cubes. Mix in mayonnaise. Add fresh dill, salt and pepper to taste, if desired.

 

Салат Оливье («царский» вариант) Olivier Salad (“Tsarist” version)
Вот рецепт «салата Оливье», приготавливаемого в лучшие времена в ресторане Эрмитаж (восстановленный в 1904 году по описаниям одного завсегдатая ресторана):

Ингредиенты

  • Филе двух отваренных рябчиков
  • Один отваренный телячий язык
  • Около 100 граммов паюсной чёрной икры
  • 200 граммов свежих листьев салата
  • 25 отваренных раков или один большой омар
  • 200-250 граммов мелких огурчиков
  • Полбанки сои кабуль (паста из сои)
  • 2 мелко порезанных свежих огурца
  • 100 граммов каперсов
  • 5 мелконарубленных, сваренных вкрутую яиц

Заправка соусом «Провансаль»: 400 граммов оливкового масла взбитые с двумя свежими яичными желтками, с добавлением французского уксуса и горчицы.

Приготовление

Ингредиенты нарезать мелкими кубиками. Заправить соусом «Провансаль».

This early recipe for Olivier salad, prepared during the height of the Hermitage restaurant’s popularity (this recipe was written out in 1904, according to the description of one of the restaurant’s frequent customers):

Ingredients

  • 2 boiled game hens
  • 1 boiled veal tongue
  • Approx. 100 grams of black caviar
  • 200 grams of fresh lettuce leaves
  • 25 boiled crayfish or one large lobster
  • 200-250 grams of small gherkins
  • Half a can of “soy kabul” (soy paste)
  • 2 thinly sliced fresh cucumbers
  • 100 grams of capers
  • 5 finely chopped hard-boiled eggs

Provencal Sauce: beat 400 grams of olive oil with two egg yolks until light and smooth, then add French vinegar and mustard.

Preparation

Chop up all the ingredients into small cubes. Mix in the Provencal Sauce.

 

Our Favorite Olivier Clips

This made-for-internet series, known as «Любимые рецепты с Натальей Скворцовой», is apparently done to advertise the mayonnaise brand «Московский Провансаль». Note that the host gives very little direction on how to actually prepare the salad – nearly the entire time is given over to the salad’s history. It is obviously assumed that most Russian-speaking viewers are already familiar with the preparation and likely more interested in a good narrative.

 

Another recipe for Olivier Salad – from a very calm, Russian-speaking woman who describes the process slowly and clearly.

About authors

Josh Wilson

Josh has lived in Moscow since 2003, when he first arrived to study Russian at MGU through SRAS. He holds an M.A. in Theatre and a B.A. in History from Idaho State University, where his masters thesis was written on the political economy of Soviet-era censorship organs affecting the stage. At SRAS, Josh assists in program development and leads our Home and Abroad Programs. He is also the editor-in-chief for the SRAS newsletter, the SRAS Family of Sites, and Vestnik: The Journal of Russian and Asian Studies. In addition, he serves as Communications Director to Alinga Consulting Group and has served as a consultant or translator to several businesses and organizations with interests in Russia.

Program attended: All Programs

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Andrei Nesterov

Andrei Nesterov has reported on political and social issues for the Russian press as well as American outlets such as Russian Life, Worldpress.org, and Triangle Free Press. He has travelled Russia extensively and penned many stories on the "real Russia" which lies beyond the capital and major cities. Andrei graduated from Ural State University (journalism) and Irkutsk State Linguistic University (English). He studied public policy and journalism at Duke University on a Muskie Fellowship and went on to study TESOL and teach Russian at West Virginia University. He is currently working on an PhD from West Virginia University in Political Science. Andrei contributes news, feature stories, and language resources to the SRAS site, and is an overall linguistics and research resource.

Program attended: All Programs

View all posts by: Andrei Nesterov