Origins of the South African Sausage, Called a Russian
Eben van Tonder
I have long tried to reconstruct the history of the South African sausage delicacy called a Russian. Due to a complete lack of information, I never did. Earlier this month I decided to give it another go as an introduction to a groundbreaking article by Dr RA LaBudde on fine emulsion sausages. (Review of comminuted and cooked meat product properties from a sol, gel and polymer viewpoint) I posted a short essay on social media and immediately started receiving high-quality input.
The Russian Connection
The first clue I had to work with is the name – a Russian. Clearly referring to a Russian origin. In its composition, it is similar to the Russian Kolbasa. The Russian word kolbasa, as well as its variations in the Slavic languages (for, example kielbasa in Polish), originated in what is now Turkey. It literally means “pressed by the hand.” (Though some researchers stick to the Hebrew origin of the word – the word combination kol basar used to mean “all flesh”).” (Russiapedia)
There are several options for its introduction to South Africa and in the final analysis, it was probably a gradual introduction over many generations. There are also other very plausible contenders for the original sausage which I prefer to relate back to the Russian kolbasa. Other contenders are the Slovenian kransky or the Polish kielbasa. The same basic sausage had many names in many countries, but I prefer the straight-line connection between its name and the closest Russian contender.
Early Russian Imigrants
In terms of who the Russians were who brought it to our shores, if we take the original sausage as being kolbasa, it could have been introduced by very early Russian immigrants but since they were mostly Russian Jews, and since the product in South Africa contains pork, I was sceptical.
From the earliest history of Johannesburg, there was a large Russian community who dominated the grocery trade. Cripps (2012) quotes a 1905 complaint from the Commercial and Industrial Transvaal which read: “Perhaps in no branch has the keen edge of competition reduced the retailers’ margin of profit to such a minimum as in the grocery line. This is due in a great measure to the number of Celestials, Greeks and Russians who have got a hold of the Transvaal trade, and whose nominal expenses and cost of living enable them to curtail the ordinary profits.”
Cripps (2012) writes that “the 1896 Census showed a total of 102,078 inhabitants in Johannesburg… Of these 50,907 were Europeans or whites, 952 Malays, 11 4,807 Asiatics, 12 2,879 mixed or other races, and 42,533 ‘natives.” Of the 24,489 whites who had been born in Europe, 12,389 were from England and Wales, 3,335 “ Russia, 2,879 “ Scotland, 2,262 “ Germany, 997 “ Ireland, 819 “ Holland, 402 “ France, 311 “ Sweden & Norway, 206 “ Italy, 139 “ Switzerland and 750 Others. (Cripps, 2012) Apart from a direct reference to their involvement in dominating the grocery trade, it also means that Russians were the seconds largest group of white foreigners in Johannesburg. These immigrants were, however, also mostly Jewish which again diminish their role in establishing the Russian sausage if we relate the sausage back to the Russian kolbasa and if we assume that it contained pork as is almost always the case today.
Cripps (2012) shows how each nationality was eager to develop and sell their traditional food and even though she does not mention Russians (the sausage), one can be certain that Russian immigrants sold their sausages, kolbasa or another variety, to the general public.
I was still looking for a non-Jewish Russian connection to make the reference to Kolbasa stick (and I assumed the old recipes would have contained pork, as is the case today). My next option was Russians who participated in the Anglo-Boer War.
There was a sizable Russian contingent who fought on the side of the Boers. Leaving the exact definition of who these Russians would have been aside for a moment, one wonders where they got the equipment to produce it but at that time, people were capable of producing complex meat formulations in their kitchen before breakfast (as is still the case in rural households across Russia, East and Central Europe). Several prominent ethnic Russians joined the Russian effort and it is very likely that the sausage could have been produced for them during the campaign by fellow Russians.
Davidson and Filatova, in their book, The Russians and the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902, mentions several such high ranking Russian aristocrats and leaders who participated in the war. One such person was the Georgian Prince Nikolai Bagration, a descendant of the Marshal Bagration who had fought against Napoleon, who was a well-connected aristocrat who once represented Georgia at the Tsar’s coronation. He was nicknamed, Niko the Boer. Others were people like Prince Mikhail Yengalychev, Ivan Zabolotny and Alexander Essen. “Zabolotny became a leader of the Trudoviks and a member of the First Duma. Essen was already a member of the Social Democrats when he arrived in Pretoria and was to play an active role in the 1905 Revolution – his underground alias was ‘the Boer’. He went on to become a leading Bolshevik and in the Twenties was appointed deputy chairman of the Russian State Planning Committee.” (quoted from an online review of Davidson and Filatova)
A few hundred Russian volunteers participated and it is likely that they prepared Kolbasa for the Russian men of note and possibly for their own consumption and even for Boer commandos whom they fought alongside. In further support of the possibility that they produced in during the campaign, there is photographic evidence of meat grinders being available and used in the field by the British and therefore possibly the Russians also (see under “Meat of War” in The Boers (Our Lives and Wars)). If the Russians shared their kolbasa with the Boers, it would have cemented the reputation of the Russian sausage and would have endured it to the Boers.
Hans de Kramer, however, correctly pointed out that “very few of the 200 or so Russians who fought with the Boers in the ABW came directly from Russia. They were Jewish rather than ethnic Russians who had come to the ZAR by the thousands since the middle of the 1890s. In the Boer War the neutral Russians (they were mainly neutral but about 3000 joined the British army) suffered with the Boers during the British scorched earth phase because many of their shops were on farmland owned by Boers and their shops were burned down because they were suspected of supplying the Boers during the guerilla phase. After the war the Russian Jewish shopkeepers claimed compensation from the British for burning down their shops, saying that they did not supply the Boers but that the Boers just arrived at their shops and commandeered food and other goods which they supplied out of fear. They described themselves as general dealers and storekeepers who were dairymen, BUTCHERS, tailors, hawkers, booksellers, a blacksmith, a printer, a hairdresser and a handful of farmers.”
Could the Original Sausage have been Kishka?
It is clear that there was not enough ethnic Russians in South Africa for the original sausage to have been Kalbasa (assuming that Kalbasa always contained pork). If the original sausage was Kishka and not Kilbasa, everything would fit because we know that kishka is a well known Jewish sausage, containing offal.
As I thought about this, I realise that such a strict definition is not necessary. For starters, there is a strong tie between a Kalbasa and a Jewish origin as we saw from the origins of the word. “Some researchers stick to the Hebrew origin of the word – the word combination kol basar used to mean “all flesh”) (Russiapedia) There are historic records of Kosher butchers making Kalbasa.
The Russian is not just like the Kolbasa, but also other Central and East European sausages. The Australian, Vic Nicholas, with his strong South African ties, pointed out that the South African Russian is very similar to the Slovenian Kransky (Krainer in German). East European and Russian peoples all made a similar, very basic sausage referred to by various names. A similar sausage is found in Germany, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia’s neighbour, Croatia who probably took their version of the same basic sausage to Australia where it is called a Kransky. Different peoples, therefore, made a similar sausage and called it by different names and it would be natural for the Jewish butchers to have done the same and simply omitted the non Kosher components such as the blood and pork.
Kishka or kishke connection is still intriguing to me. For starters, I know that Russians are very similar to polony in terms of its ingredients and polony definitely included offal in its initial recipe (The Origins of Polony). The second fascinating fact is that Kishke is a sausage stuffed with intestines and made from a combination of meat and grain. The fact that it contained grain, often soy, makes Kishka very similar to a South African Russian than most people may realise, as it very often (mostly) contains a combination of meat and soy. If this was the case when Russian Jews introduced it to South Africa, I do not know, but that it certainly contains both meat and grain or legumes today is certain. Even if it did contain legumes early on in South Africa, the fact that it does so today has more to do with the economic imperative to make expensive meat affordable than any historical reasons.
Jewish-Russian Immigrants and Kishke/ Kalbasa
Even though I could not find any reference of the Russian sausage and its consumption during the Anglo Boer war or on the mines in the Transvaal, Hans de Kramer says that he “seen a source stating that the Boers developed a taste for Russian sausages through obtaining them from the Jewish Russians during the ABWII.” Most interestingly, he also states that “Russian sausages were popular in Johannesburg amongst the very cosmopolitan mining community since a decade before ABWII.” I have learned to trust statements like these on cultural matters where there would be no reason one way or the other to embellish and I take Hans completely at his word. This is, after all, the nature of recording tradition.
The suggestion that I made earlier that ordinary Russian soldiers fighting on the side of the Boers probably made Kolbasa, albeit that being kosher, for the ethnic Russians of note who participated in the war is very likely, as is the possibility for them to have consumed it themselves and to have shared it with the burgers who fought with them. Still, with the Russian corps never being very large during the war, how big an impact could have been possible?
Reaching Far and Wide
Not just the Russians, but the people from the Balkans and Eastern Europe (such as Germany, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenians) specialised in it and it was the Russians and East Europeans who brought this technology to America following World War One. There are records in Russia of even kolbasa being produced with fillers and extenders due to meat shortages in Russia (Russiaperia).
People from the Russian steppe and surrounding regions pioneered the use of meat extenders and supplements as emulsifiers and fillers which probably developed from their millennia-old soup technology. Fine emulsion sausages became important in America, after the war during severe meat shortages. In central Africa, the same sausage sold in South Africa as a Russian is called a Hungarian after the people who brought them the technology. They produce it minus the showpieces, but omitting these may be a later adaptation.
In Sausage Making – It is best not to be too Dogmatic
It is the Russian Mater Butcher and acclaimed chef, Petr Pakhomov, who taught me not to be too dogmatic when it comes to sausage recipes. These terms we would like to give very specific definitions to like Kolbasa, were often used as generic terms referring to a certain class of sausage. Different regions and countries used their own creativity to give their own interpretation of the sausage and used as ingredients, whatever was available and allowed in their community to be used. Petr is a great example of a man who continues to re-interpret tradition by coming up with new and creative ideas all the time. (Review of comminuted and cooked meat product properties from a sol, gel and polymer viewpoint)
It is probable that the popularizing of the South African sausage called a Russian was a gradual process that started when the first Jewish-Russian immigrants arrived at the Cape of Good Hope; made an appearance during the ABW and probably gained its greatest following on the South African goldfields.
The original sausage in South Africa, introduced by Russian immigrants, almost exclusively Jewish, could even back then have been made with soy and other gains included as was the tradition at some point in history. It certainly is the case today. The most widely used recipe in South Africa today contains almost exclusively chicken, pork or beef trim, some soy and a bit of starch, filled into either a hog casing or into a sheep or beef casing if religious rules preclude the use of pork. Some butchers may add some cooked pork rind to give flavour and body. It is always cooked by the butcher to at least 69 deg C and most butchers smoke it. In recent years, some butchers have opted for beef collagen casings but this remains challenging when you deep fry the Russian as is often done.
Review of comminuted and cooked meat product properties from a sol, gel and polymer viewpoint
Cripps, E. A. 2012. Provisioning Johannesburg, 1886 – 1906. Unisahttps://russiapedia.rt.com/of-russian-origin/kolbasa/#:~:text=Russian%20sausage,originally%20made%20of%20animal%20intestines.&text=The%20Russian%20word%20kolbasa%20as,in%20what%20is%20now%20Turkey
Davidson and Filatova, in their book, The Russians and the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902. Also, see the online review of Davidson and Filatova.
Mavor, J. 1914. An Economic History of Russia.
Mendelsohn, R. 2019. Uprooted and uncompensated: the mistreatment of ‘Russian’ Jews by Perfidious Albion during and after the Anglo-Boer war