I once heard an old wives’ tale about the origins of salat olivier, a Russian-style potato salad that was one of my favorite homemade dishes growing up. Supposedly, it was inadvertently invented when a chef decided to combine all of his leftovers together in one bowl. Considering the array of ingredients used in olivier—a combination of proteins, potatoes, and vegetables—this explanation seemed plausible.
It wasn’t until recently that I discovered the true roots of my childhood favorite meal. According to the School of Russian and Asian Studies, Olivier was the culinary brainchild of a French chef named Lucien Olivier, who ran Hermitage, a famous Parisian-style restaurant in Moscow in the 1860s. The original recipe included expensive game and seafood ingredients—veal tongue, grouse, crayfish, and caviar, to name a few—and was dressed in homemade Provencal-style French mayonnaise.
Legend has it that this salad was one of Chef Olivier’s most beloved dishes. He was fiercely protective of his precious recipe—so much so that he took it to his grave. But it was loosely reconstructed from the combined memories (and kitchen espionage) of Olivier’s sous chef, as well as some loyal Hermitage customers. It has since become a fundamental feature of any contemporary Russian party spread—the vodka of Russian salads, if you will – especially at New Year’s celebrations.
However, modern olivier bares only a faint resemblance to its namesake’s original creation. Olivier, like many gourmet recipes, evolved over time as expensive and seasonal ingredients were gradually replaced with cheaper, more readily available foods. It is sometimes even referred to as “Sovetsky (Soviet) olivier” due to the makeover it received during that time. Due to state-implemented austerity measures, Soviet cuisine was characterized by simple preparation and a lack of ingredients. People had to make do with the foods available to them, and cooking styles were adapted accordingly.
Game and seafood were scarce and prohibitively expensive, so these olivier elements were replaced with chicken, ham, and other more commonplace meats. Cheaper, more accessible ingredients such as potatoes, eggs, pickles, capers, olives, and peas were added to make up for the lack of pricy proteins, and store-bought mayonnaise was substituted for the homemade dressing.
“If you take into account the societal changes in Russia since Olivier’s time, it makes sense that the ingredients would change to reflect what was available, as well as people’s changing tastes,” says Darra Goldstein, Russian food scholar, author, and founding editor of Gastronomica.
As a result, the same dishes are often prepared differently depending on who you ask and where they’re from—and olivier is no exception. The basic components—potatoes, eggs, peas, and mayonnaise—are, for the most part, universal. Beyond that, there is widespread disagreement. The majority of Russians will agree that either pickles or fresh cucumbers must also be added, and most recipes call for some form of meat. Common choices include bologna (doctorskaya kalbasa, baby pork bologna, is frequently used), chicken, or even hot dogs. Unconventional options include sausage, salami, beef, and crabmeat. Things start to get a bit controversial once extra ingredients like apples, onions, carrots, green beans, dill, and sour cream are thrown in the mix.
Many Ukrainian cities, including Odessa, Kherson, and Vinnitsa, share a similar olivier recipe. I believe it is the best version, but I may be biased—my mom is from Odessa, so this is the olivier I have eaten my entire life. It’s made with potatoes, eggs, peas, pickles, and bologna. The ingredients are finely chopped and mixed together with mayonnaise (see recipe below).
Olivier from Minsk, Moscow, and Kiev is similar to the Odessa version, with the addition of carrots and, depending who you ask, apples or half-mayo-half-sour-cream dressing. In Orsha, pickles are often replaced with fresh cucumbers, and onions are also added to the standard formula. Georgian versions of the salad sometimes include walnuts – the mild climate in the region, which is conducive to growing walnut trees, makes this a popular ingredient in Georgian cooking.
Olivier is a salad with many faces—the recipe, as well as the name, have changed with the times.
“Olivier was too bourgeois a name,” says Goldstein. “During Soviet years, it was called Stolichniy, which is how I came to know and love it.”
“Moskovskiy” (Moscow) salad is often used to describe olivier made with fresh ingredients such as apples or cucumbers. Others nickname it “zimniy” (winter) salad because of the lack of fresh ingredients in most versions. Due to the centrally planned Soviet economy and associated farming practices, fresh fruits and vegetables were only available seasonally. However, potatoes and carrots could occasionally be found at state-run stores during the long, cold Russian winters.
The simplicity and versatility of olivier makes it an easy and delicious addition to any table—and adaptable to any culture. In Warsaw, a vegetarian version of this salad is made without meat or mayonnaise—it contains only potatoes, peas, pickles, carrots, apples, and olive oil. Olivier is popular in Iran, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, and even some Latin American countries where it is commonly referred to as ensalada Rusa or ensaladilla Olivier. The Peruvian version contains beets, and it is often made with tuna in Guatemala, where it is especially popular.
For me, olivier is the ultimate comfort food. Everyone can make it, everyone loves it, and it never fails to bring back childhood memories. Although the ingredients are seemingly odorless, the preparation always generates a faint yet unmistakable aroma in my mom’s kitchen, signifying that a family gathering or celebration is looming in the near future. It is, and always will be, the smell of home. And just like cheddar vs. American grilled cheese, or crust-on vs. crust-off PB&J, everyone thinks their way of making it is the best–and that any other version may as well be a different food altogether.
Take a stab at my favorite olivier recipe, as it is made in Odessa, Ukraine!
Olivier in the style of Odessa
- 5 medium baking potatoes, boiled (about 25 ounces)
- 10 hard-boiled eggs
- (as a rule of thumb, use about 1 egg per small potato, 2 eggs per medium potato, and 3 eggs per large potato)
- 16-oz jar of dill pickles, drained
- 1 pound veal bologna or doctorskaya bologna
- 7 ounces canned tiny sweet peas
- 5 ounces mayonnaise (low fat may be used)
- Salt and pepper, to taste
Using a hand chopper or sharp knife, dice the boiled potatoes and eggs into uniform 1/4 inch cubes, and combine in a very large bowl. Don’t go smaller than 1/4 inch cubes, or the salad will be mushy.
Drain the peas, and dice the pickles and bologna into uniform 1/4 inch cubes. There should be roughly equal proportions of green (pickles and peas), pink (bologna), and white/yellows (potatoes and eggs). Don’t be afraid to add a bit extra if you think the color balance is off—for example, a too-big potato can cause the salad to be a bit heavy on the white side!
Add mayonnaise. Don’t be afraid to add some more, to taste—it should be enough to bind the salad, but not so much that the ingredients are drowning.
Add salt and pepper until you are satisfied with the taste.
Save your leftovers! Olivier tastes even better the next day, after the ingredients have had time to marry.
Serves 10 as a side dish.