Origins of the South African Sausage, Called a Russian
Eben van Tonder
November 2020 (Cape Town) (Updated 22 October 2023, Lagos, Nigeria)
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
Is the name – Russian, a reference 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) In Slovenia, it is called a kransky and the Poles, kielbasa.
Early Russian Immigrants
One option is that it is Russians who brought it to our shores. Most Russian immigrants, were, however, Jewish and since the product in South Africa contains pork, I was sceptical.
In early Johannesburg, a large Russian community 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 second largest group of white foreigners in Johannesburg.
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.
An Anglo-Boer War Russian Connection?
We know that Russians fought in the ABW on the side of the Boers. Could they have brought the tradition over? 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 could have been produced for them during the campaign under instruction by wealthy fellow Russians.
Davidson and Filatova, in their book, The Russians and the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902, mention 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 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 their own consumption and even for Boer commandos whom they fought alongside. In further support of the possibility that they produced 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 (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.” It seems that the numbers of Russians were so small that one wonders if they had a particular effect during the war on the creation of such a culinary tradition.
Could the Original Sausage have been Kishka?
It is clear that there were 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. Kishke is Slavic in origin and means “gut” or intestines. This is also made across Eastern Europe and every country calls it by its own unique name.
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 historical 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 remains a good contender. 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). 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 the traditional South African sausage contains a combination of meat and soy. What grain would have been used in Johannesburg in those early days to add to the sausage is an interesting question as soy only became popular following WW2. That it 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 reason. If grain was used earlier with the meat, it would have “opened the door”, so to speak for a later inclusion of soy.
Even though I could not find any reference to the Russian sausage and its consumption during the Anglo-Boer war or on the mines in the Transvaal, Hans de Kramer claims to have “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.
Jewish Russian shopkeepers stocked Russian sausages and sold them to the Boers during the ABW and on the Johannesburg Reef to the mine camps. The existence of these camps was at the heart of the development of an enormous meat trade in Johannesburg.
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. see my article on this subject, “Protein Functionality, the Bind Index and the Early History of Meat Extenders in America.”
The Lituanian Revelation
In 2023, two papers I did had a huge impact on my thinking about the Russian sausages. One is “The Gluckman Project” where I trace the immigration from Lithuania to South Africa of the brothers Maurice and Nathan Gluckman and the other is the creation of a Jewish newspaper in Johannesburg, also by a Lithuanian immigrant, Ben-Zion S. Hersch, “The Jewish Standard.” This importantly introduced me to the largest of all Russian groups to have ever immigrated to South Africa namely Lithuanian Jews.
Lithuania was for some time part of the Russian Empire. Russian domination of Lithuania goes back to the 1700s. The Third Partition of Poland, also known as the Third Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, took place in 1795. As a result of this partition, the territory of Lithuania, along with much of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was divided among Russia, Prussia, and Austria. The eastern part of Lithuania, including Vilnius, came under Russian control.
Lithuania remained under Russian control for over a century, during which it was part of the Russian Empire. On February 16, 1918, Lithuania declared its independence from Russia and established the Republic of Lithuania. This declaration marked the end of its formal association with the Russian Empire. It is therefore likely that the sausage was introduced by Lithuanian Jews (or one of the other Jewish ethnic groups from under the Russian Empire) and that the immigrants were generally referred to as “Russians”.
There is a major flaw with this theory namely that during the period when Lithuania was part of the Russian Empire (1795-1918), the Lithuanian population was generally not referred to as “Russians” by the outside world. The people of Lithuania, including ethnic Lithuanians, retained their distinct cultural and national identities, despite being subjects of the Russian Empire. This was true of other countries incorporated in the Russian empire.
It did, however, give me a specific direction to search for the sausage. Amongst Lithuanian Sausage I discovered an excellent contender called a Kiełbasa Litewska. It has all the main ingredients for a Russian including showpieces. I will give the following recipe I found on Meat and Sausages.
|Pork, semi-fat||200 g||0.44 lb|
|Beef, semi-fat||300 g||0.66 lb|
|Hard fat trimmings||200 g||0.44 lb|
|Meat trimmings*||300 g||0.66 lb|
|Ingredients per 1000g (1 kg) of meat|
|Salt||20 g||3-1/3 tsp|
|Cure # 1||2.5 g||1/2 tsp|
|Pepper||1.0 g||1/2 tsp|
|Paprika||1.0 g||1 tsp|
|Allspice||0.5 g||1/4 tsp|
|Garlic||3.0 g||1 clove|
Ground allspice berries are allspice, but a mix often includes cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger. In South Africa, we will add cardamon, cumin, marjoram and onion powder.
How the sausage is made is the interesting bit. Notice the use of fat as “show pieces.” This is exactly how a Russian sausage is made in South Africa.
- Grind pork with 3/8” (8 mm) plate. Grind fat trimmings with 3/8” (8 mm) plate. Grind beef with 1/8” (3 mm) plate. Grind meat trimmings with 1/8” (3 mm) plate.
- Emulsify ground beef and meat trimmings adding 20% (120 ml, 4 oz fl) crushed ice or cold water. Add salt, cure and spices during this step.
- Mix ground pork, ground fat and emulsified meats together.
- Stuff into 32 mm hog casings. Form 25-28 cm (10-11”) links and divide into pairs.
- Hang for 12 hours at 2-6° C (35-43° F) OR for 1-2 hours at room temperature.
- Apply hot smoke at 55-60° C (130-140° F) for 80-100 min until light brown color is obtained.
- Cook sausages: in water at 72-75° C (161-167° F) for 25-35 min until meat reaches 68-70° C (154-158° F) internal temperature.
- Cool in water. Refrigerate.
- OR: bake in smokehouse. In the last stage of smoking increase temperature to 75-90° C (167-194° F) for about 30 minutes until sausages reach 68-70° C (154-158° F) internal temperature. Cool in air to 18°C (64°F) or lower. Refrigerate.
- To make a semi-dry sausages add the following steps: sausages cooked in water are submitted to a secondary smoking: with cold smoke (18° C, 64° F) for 12 hours OR with warm smoke (24-32°C, 75-90° F) for 6 hours.
- Dry sausages (baked or cooked) at 12-18°C (53-64°F), 75-80% humidity for 2-3 days until sample sausages achieve 86% yield. If mold appears wipe it off.
Notes: *meat trimmings: hearts, tongues, beef head meat, pork head meat.
(From Meat and Sausages)
As a contender for the Russian sausage as we know it in South Africa, Kishka or kishke may have influenced it, but the inclusion of serials and grains before soy isolated proteins were available would have given the sausage a “mushy” texture as less protein meant less gel formation and less hardness. The Lithuanian Kiełbasa Litewska is a far better contender with nice firmness and a snap (Knakt) when it is bitten into or bent over till it breaks. In this regard, there is little difference between the Polish Kielbasa and the Lithuanian Kiełbasa Litewska. The main differences relate to the spices used.
An excellent article appears in Taste of Artisan. Victor, the creator of the website did an amazing job of giving the background to a smoked version of the Kielbasa, the Kielbasa Lisiecka which is, what the Lithuanian sausage will look like related to texture and show pieces.
We have not answered two key questions. One relates to the use of pork for a sausage sold by Jewish shopkeepers and clarity relates to the name, a russian! Let’s first consider pork.
It is easy to say that pork was cheaper than beef (as was and is the case) in South Africa and that the Jewish shopkeepers put their religious objections aside in favour of monetary gain. A notable example of a prominent Orthodox Jew in the pork trade was none other than Aron Vecht was arguably the largest meat curer to have existed. I have written extensively about him. From my book on meat curing, Bacon & the Art of Living:
- Chapter 14.03: Aron Vecht
- Chapter 14.04: Aron Vecht: His Curing Method and Businesses
- Chapter 14.05: Henry Denny’s Singeing of Pork and Related Reflections on Vecht
The problem with this view is that of all the places on earth where the strictest interpretation of the religious documents of the Jewish faith was applied, Lithuania was right at the top of this list. I cannot imagine that they would have set gain before principal. Money above faith was never an option!
A British author recently pointed out to me that a kosher butcher producing pork products was frowned upon in the Jewish community. Apparently, it was frowned upon but allowed if the Jewish butcher did his pork production from a different factory/ site. Vecht would fall in this category as he had dedicated pork production sites around the globe.
In terms of structure, this discussion may get us closer to Kielbasa as the original inspiration, but still, the name is an enigma.
Related to the Name: An Intriguing Suggestion
While I was researching the Lithuanian Jewish population, the development of Zionism, and the immigration of the Gluckman brothers and Hersch to South Africa, a thought occurred. It would warrant a separate article, but I summarise the result of my investigation here.
One of the key driving forces behind the development of Zionism was the persecution of the Jews. In the entire world, in the 1800s and early 1900s there was probably no place where anti-Semitism was more severe and led to more misery at an unimaginable scale as in the Russian Empire. I wonder if the creative Lithuanians and other Jewish immigrants (actually, refugees) from the Russian Empire, when they had to come up with a name for their sausages, originally made from offal and meat scraps did not think that “Russian” was an appropriate name for the sausage to deride, express contempt and scorn towards the Russians.
This could even cover the inclusion of pork in this dish. We know that the name, “Russian” in all likelihood does not refer to the country where the sausages originated. Why not call it a Lithuanian or a Polish? This is, however, exactly my point. Contained in the russian sausage may be the story of the Jewish people and how they were treated around the world for millennia and in the Russian Empire in particular.
Today, in South Africa, Russians are made from the best quality meat and linking any nation to the sausage would be something to be proud of, but back then it was the intestines and meat scraps. The historical context opens an interesting possibility.
A point must be made about the almost complete silence from history related to the naming of the sausage. Despite extensive searches I have made myself and professional researchers, we can find almost no information to shed light on the topic in the historical records. This is not unheard of, but the silence is enough to strike one as odd. If what I propose here is true, it would explain why nobody was prepared to put pen to paper and write this down. Even more, if it were produced with pork, even from a different factory, it would make sense why nobody was talking about it and telling the story.
Best Not To Be 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. 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)
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.
Russians Sausages – its history, naming and composition are remarkable!
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.