We all have our holiday traditions, and for me, the season is epitomized by a single dish. My mother has made it every Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve since I was a boy. If I can, I coax her into making it on my birthday, too. It’s nothing fancy—in fact, it’s a side—but its flavor is forever fused in my mind with that feeling of family, the joy of the season, and the comforting warmth of home. We call it ensalada rusa. It's a holiday staple in the Dominican Republic: a simple potato salad made special—and turned pink—by adding beets.
“That salad cannot be missing from the Dominican dinner table on a special occasion,” my mother, Josefina, tells me. “It’s the sign that we are celebrating something beautiful.”
Ensalada rusa translates to “Russian salad.” I used to think the name was on account of the color given by the beets, but the backstory isn’t as straightforward. My mother tells me that years ago, a French chef working in Russia served the salad as a side dish, and it was its overwhelming popularity there that gave it its name. The chef’s version, however, was white. That distinct deep pink color that ensalada rusa had throughout my childhood would appear many years—and many miles—away.
“Ensalada rusa cannot be missing from the Dominican dinner table on a special occasion. It’s the sign that we are celebrating something beautiful.”
“We’re the ones that turn it that color with beets,” my mother says. “It’s a special Dominican touch.” The story goes that the French chef’s recipe was also popular in Spain, and eventually crossed the Atlantic Ocean to land on our Caribbean island. Once there, it was passed down through the generations, becoming a mainstay of the Dominican dinner table. Beets are a popular food in the Caribbean, and so it’s no surprise that when that Mamá, my grandmother, made ensalada rusa at home, the beets had found their way into the recipe. “I remember the salad vividly from my childhood,” my mother says. “Whenever there was a celebration, or visits from relatives who lived far away, I saw Mamá making that salad.”
The ensalada rusa recipe would travel many miles once again, when my mother emigrated to the United States where I was born. There, it would grace the dinner table of my childhood, year after year. Now, the dish is indelibly linked to every memory I have of the holidays. My mother would often prepare splendid spreads of pernil and moro on Christmas or New Year’s Eve, but it never felt complete until I saw that bowl of ensalada rusa, with its deep pink color punctuating the celebratory air of the evening. “I make it exactly how Mamá used to make it,” my mother says. “She didn’t like adding too many ingredients, just what was necessary. The potatoes, the carrots, the eggs, the beets, and a special seasoning—a secret recipe of Mamá’s that I watched her make and later learned.”
My mother learned to make ensalada rusa from her mother, and now, I’ve learned it from her. This season, I prepared ensalada rusa on my own for the first time. With my mother’s dutiful guidance, I boiled the potatoes just so—skins and all; I boiled the eggs and carrots; and I added the beets that give our ensalada rusa that trademark rouge. The taste of my salad will never match my mother’s—that, I’ve already resigned myself to—but if I can bring to others even a fraction of the joy that it has brought to me, I will be honored to have passed the tradition on.
“I love cooking,” my mother says. “It’s beautiful when you can create something so marvelous as a plate of delicious food that stays on someone’s tongue forever. And when they think of you, they remember the flavor of what you had prepared them.” Ensalada rusa will always be that marvelous dish for me, bringing me home with every bite, no matter where I eat.
Learn How to Make Ensalada Rusa
- 2 lbs. of red potatoes
- 1 can of sliced beets
- 6 eggs
- 2 carrots
- 1/4 onion (1/2 if it's a small one)
- 1/2 lemon
1. Boil the potatoes with the skin on. About 15 minutes in, add some salt for flavoring.
2. Add eggs and skinned carrots to boiling pot once the potatoes are about halfway cooked.
3. When the potatoes are soft, remove everything from pot and let cool. Peel and dice potatoes into small, warm squares.
4. Dice the carrots and keep in a separate bowl.
5. Dice the beets into very small bits and add to bowl with carrots.
6. Shell hard boiled eggs and mash in a separate container. Add carrots and beets and mash in with the eggs.
7. Mix carrots, eggs, diced onion, and beets in with potatoes and mix well. Mom recommends using your hands.
8. Add two spoonfuls of mayonnaise and mix well. Mom recommends a wooden spoon. Stir until the salad is thick, and season to taste.
9. Serve warm if eating soon after making it (it's delicious), or refrigerate if waiting for later (it's even better when you let the flavors settle in overnight).