Photos by 
Jessicarobyn Keyser
Jessicarobyn Keyser

This Potato Salad Is the King of Russian Appetizers

by 
Margarita Gokun Silver
September 22, 2021

When I arrived in the United States in 1990 — a newly-minted immigrant from an almost defunct but still-kicking Soviet Union — my primary objective was to disengage from anything that made me Russian and become 100% American. Assimilation via food was the speediest and the easiest point of entry: you try getting rid of that harsh Russian accent (and don’t even get me started on attempting to understand baseball). And so I banished every dish I’d ever eaten or prepared in our tiny Moscow kitchen from my (even tinier) American kitchenette and embraced apple pie, pizza, and, when I still ate meat, an occasional burger. To supersize my efforts I also decided to snub Russian food wherever and whenever I encountered it — which was most often when I went to see my parents.

For my mother, my visits were a celebration: living an 11-hour drive away from her only child wasn’t the way she’d envisioned her new life in the US. To prepare for my arrival she’d spend hours in the kitchen making the Russian zakuski, or appetizers, we used to make together when I was growing up. The centerpiece of these appetizers was olivi’e (also known as Olivier), a salad that could be called “the Russian potato salad” but should really be referred to as the King of Zakuski. Made from mixing cooked potatoes and carrots, hard boiled eggs, pickles, peas, fresh cucumbers, and apples and then dressing this mélange of diced ingredients with mayonnaise, olivi’e has been taking center stage at our family table ever since I remember—and for many years before.

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It's believed that olivi’e originated in the 19th-century Moscow restaurant “Hermitage,” run by a French chef, Lucien Olivier. The original recipe, although kept a secret by Olivier, was reported to include grouse meat, crayfish, caviar, and capers, with imported olive oil and fresh eggs making up the dressing. Later, thanks to famines and deficits brought upon by the Russian revolution, the civil war, World War II, and Brezhnev’s stagnation, these fit-for-a-Tsar-or-an-oligarch components were scaled down to the simpler ingredients of chicken, pickles, and factory-made mayo. The Soviet people made olivi’e into the golden calf of celebrations. It became the symbol and must-have dish of New Year’s Eve and a common centerpiece during important family events. Home cooks competed with each other in creating their own versions of the salad: They played with proportions, took chances on chopped herbs (what, cilantro in olivi’e?!), and improvised on their ingredients.

For my family, the ingredient that set our olivi’e apart from others became apple. I was almost always in charge of dicing it in small enough cubes to add to the salad and in slicing thin wedges for decoration. Decorating the olivi’e was a must: as soon as I was old enough, my job was to stick a sprig of parsley as if it were a bonsai into the top and to arrange slices of carrots and apple around it as if they were rocks in a meditation garden. In the family affair of making olivi’e, the last — and the most important, according to my mother — step was my pride and my responsibility.

With immigration that responsibility disappeared and with my stellar assimilation efforts the pride waned. For a while I turned my nose up at every olivi’e my mother made. (Yes, I realize, this makes me sound like a jerk. I was.) Then my daughter became old enough to assume the decoration duties. And as I watched her help my mother make olivi’e, I realized some things from my past self were worth keeping. Since then olivi’e has come back into my life, inspiring a whole chapter in my recent, immigrant-themed essay collection and becoming a regular centerpiece of my New Year’s Eve table. And while it never comes out as well as my mother’s, my daughter and I try to make it together whenever possible. And we always add apple.

Olivi'e, the King of Russian Appetizers

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Serves 4

Ingredients

2 medium-sized potatoes

3 medium-sized carrots

3 eggs

2 dill pickles

1 small cucumber

1 can of sweet peas or one cup of frozen, thawed

1 fuji (or similar) apple

3/4 to 1 cup of mayonnaise 

Fresh dill to taste (about 2 tbsp)

Salt to taste

 | 
 | 
Serves 4

Ingredients

2 medium-sized potatoes

3 medium-sized carrots

3 eggs

2 dill pickles

1 small cucumber

1 can of sweet peas or one cup of frozen, thawed

1 fuji (or similar) apple

3/4 to 1 cup of mayonnaise 

Fresh dill to taste (about 2 tbsp)

Salt to taste

Ingredients

2 medium-sized potatoes

3 medium-sized carrots

3 eggs

2 dill pickles

1 small cucumber

1 can of sweet peas or one cup of frozen, thawed

1 fuji (or similar) apple

3/4 to 1 cup of mayonnaise 

Fresh dill to taste (about 2 tbsp)

Salt to taste

Directions

1. Add unpeeled potatoes and carrots to a pot, cover completely with water, and cook for 20-25 minutes or until a fork pierces through easily. Watch over the carrots, as they may be ready before the potatoes. Once cooked, remove vegetables from water and set them aside to cool. Peel them once they’re cool enough to handle.

2.  Make hard-boiled eggs.

3. Cube the potatoes, carrots, eggs, pickles, cucumber, and apple, and mix them together. Drain the peas before mixing them in.

4. Add the mayo. You may need more or less, depending on the size of your ingredients.

5. Mix in minced dill.

6. Add salt to taste.

7. Eat at room temperature or refrigerate to chill.

About the Author

Margarita Gokun Silver

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