Barbarians in the Kitchen

Before the cosmopolitan citizens of Hamburg, Germany began cooking it and putting it between sliced bread, steak tartar–as such it was served–consisted of lean, raw beefsteak minced, mixed with egg and seasonings. The dish came to western Europe from eastern Slavic regions, which has a long history of Mongol encroachment. The Mongols’ Turkic allies, known the Tatars, were known from Tartary, which was essentially Mongolia, though the name was a conflation of Tatar with the Greek stories of Tartarus (i.e. Hell). Tartars had a tradition of finely mincing very tough meats like horse and camel to make them edible, then binding the meat with milk or eggs. Stories of this dish being made by placing the meat under a saddle to ride upon it until tender probably came from the use of thin slices of meat to protect saddle sores from further abrasion.

Similarly, tartar sauce, or as the French refer to it, sauce tartare, consists of mayonnaise, mustard, chives, chopped gherkins, and tarragon in various combinations. In French, it is loosely translated as ‘rough,’ as the Tartars were considered rough, violent, and savage. But in his Creole Cook Book, irrepressible Lafcadio Hearn, a devoted journalist with a light heart, gives us a recipe for tartar sauce that harkens back to the days when the Golden Horde still prowled around the Great Gates of Kiev.


There are two good ways in which a Tartar sauce may be made. You can try whichever you please; but if you are in a hurry the second will suit your purpose better than the first.

1st: Catch a young Tartar: for the old ones are very tough and devoid of juice. To catch a Tartar is generally a very unpleasant and at all times a difficult undertaking. A young Tartar will probably cost you at least $10,000—and perhaps your life—before you get through with him: but if you must have Tartar sauce you must be ready to take all risks. Having procured your Tartar you must kill him privately, taking care that the act shall escape the observation of the police authorities, who would probably in such a case be strongly prejudiced in favor of the Tartar. Having killed, skinned and cleaned the Tartar, cut off the tenderest part of the hams and thighs; boil three hours, and then hash up with Mexican pepper, aloes and spices. Add a quart of mulled wine and slowly boil to the consistency of honey. You will probably find the Tartar sauce very palatable; and if hermetically sealed in bottles with the addition of a little Santa Cruz rum, will serve for a long time. The rest of the Tartar will not keep, and must be disposed of judiciously.

2nd: Take the yolk of a hardboiled egg, a teaspoonful of mustard, a tablespoonful of olive oil, a little vinegar, a little parsley and pickled cucumber, and hash up very fine.

Here’s a modern-day recipe that is simple and delicious. Finely mince dill pickles (I use kosher spears) to make about a third a cup and add about a tablespoon finely minced capers. Chives, dill and/or tarragon are customary options. Mix with a cup of mayonnaise and the juice of half a lemon. This keeps in the refrigerator for several days.