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The layered Russian salad with a poetic name — and strong flavors

March 29, 2018 at 11:00 AM

Herring under a fur coat, a Russian layered salad. (Goran Kosanovic/For The Washington Post; styling by Kara Elder)

The name alone is striking, but a glimpse and taste of herring under a fur coat is unforgettable. Known as selyodka pod shuboy in Russian, the salad features layers of salt-cured herring, grated potatoes, carrots, onions and beets, topped with a cheerful dose of beet-dyed, bright pink mayonnaise and, typically, finely grated hard-cooked egg.

With such a name, there is bound to be history, and this is where it gets dicey: A commonly cited legend involves a Moscow bar owner who, around 1919, needed something to keep his patrons from becoming too intoxicated; one of his chefs came up with the dish and named it SH.U.B.A., an acronym for a phrase poetically rendered as “boycott and damnation to chauvinism and decadence” (shuba also happens to mean “fur coat” in Russian). The people loved it, and the name morphed into herring under a fur coat.

Or does the story begin in mid-19th-century Russia, when chopped salads dressed with mayonnaise (think Salad Olivier) were in vogue? That’s the word from historians Olga and Pavel Syutkin, who in their 2015 “CCCP Cookbook” write: “While the origins of herring salad are pre-Revolutionary, its culinary transformation occurred in the 1960s,” when an unknown chef started layering herring — a plentiful and high-quality food at the time — into chopped salads, with lots of mayonnaise in between.

It seems history, much like the present, is murky and complicated. But in the restaurants where it’s served, the dish is unequivocally popular — at least among Russians.

1. ALLIUMS AND EGGS

Grated onion (or sometimes diced scallion) brings a little bite to the dish, while grated egg whites and yolks lend yet another dimension of richness.

2. HERRING

There’s no getting around it: If you don’t like strongly flavored fish, this is not the dish for you, explains Bonnie Frumkin Morales of Kachka restaurant in Portland, Ore. The herring is salt-cured (not pickled).

3. VEGETABLES

Potatoes, carrots and beets are usually boiled and grated, but at Washington’s Mari Vanna restaurant, they are baked. The beet’s role is twofold: The root adds a bit of sweetness and throws some pink shade into the dressing.

4. MAYONNAISE

Most restaurants make their own, adding another layer of lushness.

Find the dish in the District at Mari Vanna (1141 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-783-7777, marivanna.ru/washington); in Rockville at Golden Samovar (201 N. Washington St., 240-671-9721, goldensamovarrestaurant.com); in Arlington at Rus Uz (1000 N. Randolph St., 571-312-4086, rusuz.com); in Portland, Ore., at Kachka (720 SE Grand Ave., 503-235-0059, kachkapdx.com); and at many other Russian restaurants and markets across the country.

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Kara Elder is the editorial aide and a contributor for the Food section. She tests, edits and writes about recipes, plus answers readers' cooking questions. Kara worked for a cookbook author before joining The Washington Post in 2015.

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