‘That’s Russian salad! We have that in Spain!’ Commented my friend Elena on visiting me once when I lived in Moscow.

‘Actually, here it’s not Russian salad. This is Olivier salad.’ I responded while filling a couple of glasses of cold vodka.

In Russia I ate simply, making homemade borscht, buying local cheeses and baguettes from the kiosks and ladies downstairs on the street. One thing I always loved was ‘Russian’ salads; a nationwide preoccupation with mayonnaise-based salads that the rest of the world neatly pigeonholes into one, quite often disappointing, white slop that looks like a coleslaw with the cabbage substituted for something else.

Among the vast gamut of salads in one restaurant  – just Google ‘elki palki salads’ – there was was one multi-coloured gloop that did recall a more familiar dish that I had enjoyed in Spain.

This dish, the ensaladilla rusa, is one of those dishes that is often forgotten about or not ordered – many people aren’t keen on mayonnaise…fools, but one that I crave and also make, in my own way, at home.

So what was going on here? Russian? Spanish? Let’s find out!

The origins

First of all, the mayo-based Russian salad of note has some close cousins that directly preceded it. In the mid-19th century it was fashionable to add mayonnaise to dishes, a culinary trend, and the Russian love a trend. In fact an English-Italian chef called Charles Elmé Francatelli published a recipe in 1845 that he called Russian Salad that is similar to the modern incarnation: langoustine, anchovies, tuna, crab, olives and capers covered in mayonnaise.

Various other iterations appeared over the following years, sometimes with only vegetables, sometimes with meat, but always dressed with mayo. However it wasn’t until Lucien Olivier, a Russian chef of Belgian origin, created a dish for his Hermitage restaurant in Moscow in 1860 that it became ‘official’ as a dish.

The original recipe was a guarded secret so following versions are more commonly based on the version by Olivier’s sous-chef Ivanov, who snuck into his kitchen one day to check out his ingredient selection, left Hermitage, went to work at a different restaurant and created a suspiciously similar dish called ‘capital salad’.

The salad didn’t arrive to Spain until the 20th century and they are some ideas that it really rose in popularity during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) because of the political affinity the Republican-leaning Spanish had with the Russians, who were nominally on their side.

Nowadays you’ll oft find either behind the bar sitting in the aluminium presentation tanks next to other tapas ready to be warmed or dished out, or on the menu itself. Having said that, ensaladilla rusa (or ensalada rusa) is very much a classic summer dish so a lot of bars will serve it seasonally.

The dish

The stripped down, classic ensaladilla rusa at its heart is a diced up chunky mixture of potatoes, peas, tuna and mayonnaise and maybe peas and carrots. After that each person can tweak it to their own personal tastes, adding egg, shrimp, chicken, sweetcorn, pickles, piquillo peppers, almonds and so on.

One of the key elements, arguably the key element, is the mayonnaise. If you are the kind of person willing to take the time and mess to make their own mayonnaise, your salad will thank you. I’m lazy, so I just buy the mayos I like – unoriginally I’m a fan of Hellman’s.

Make sure everything is chopped to similar sizes – obviously don’t chop the peas – and then coat and mix liberally with the mayo. Serve cool from the fridge with breadsticks and perhaps a drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil on top.

If you head to the Levante (the regions of Valencia and Murcia) the potatoes are often a little more mushy, toward being mashed, and sometimes have a marine vibe by adding boquerones or anchovies on top. De. Lightful.

All I need to do now is invite my Russian friends to come over to Spain and see what they think!

Where I eat it:

Madrid – Catapa (Calle Menorca, 14), Restaurante Naviego (Calle Mayor, 18), La Tasquita de Enfrente (Calle de la Ballesta, 6), Posada del Dragón (Cava Baja, 14), Los Galayos (Calle Botoneras, 5), Mesón la Paloma (Calle Calatrava, 17).

Alicante – El Portal (Calle Bilbao, 2), Nou Manolín (Calle Villegas, 3).

Murcia – Bar Fenix (Calle Pascual, 16), Café-Bar Gran Vía (Avda. Alfonso X El Sabio).

Barcelona – Bar Bas (Rambla de Catalunya, 7).

Seville – Cafeteria Donald (Calle Canalejas, 5).

What I drink with it:

A nice acidic and crisp chilled white is what I like with this dish. Try a bottle of Viña Mein, a blend of various grapes from Galicia.

What I listen to:

De Ushuaia A La Quiaca – Gustavo Santoalalla

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