Steaming bowls of the Eastern European stew got a bad rep after decades being eaten by Soviet spies on TV
The truth about borscht – or is it borsch? Or even the Ukrainian preference of borshch? – is that like any food wrapped up in national identity, there are countless ways to prepare it, but only one correct one. Is it the Ukrainian, Russian or Belorussian way? That probably depends on which direction the political wind is blowing. But of one thing we can at least be certain, when that wind is flinging an icy gale straight at you, a hot bowl of rich, salty and sweet stewed beetroots and cabbage hit the spot. Just don’t call it a soup.
To do so would be to expose yourself a decadent and ignorant westerner, who cannot begin to understand the culinary complexities going on in this liquid meal. Granted, when it’s served in bowls filled to the brim with a steaming crimson broth, it’s hard to not see soup. If it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, toss it in a soup. But the mass of beets, cabbage, carrots and potatoes, dyed the most stunning shades of magenta in the pot, is considered something much more significant in its homeland – whichever one that is. But to western consumers raised on the fat pickings of capitalism and spy novels and movies, it’s the sanguine soup sipped by Soviet sleeper agents in the downtime, a brown gruel that encapsulates the entire problem with Communism in a single spoonful.
Such a shame, then, that it was us westerners who gave it to them. Historically, borscht was a commonly eaten food in the Roman Empire, where beetroots and cabbages were specifically cultivated for the stewed soup. Most food historians agree, however, that the modern version of borscht comes from the Kievan Rus’, the Old East Slavic term for a loose federation of tribes in Europe that forged a society from the late 9th to the mid-13th century, and which is – depending on how you cast your Eurovision points – is either the beginnings of Russia or Ukraine.
As for the name, arguably the most popular legend finds some undoubtedly apocryphal origins in a large pot placed over a campfire by the Cossacks in 1637. The Cossacks were laying siege to the Azov fortress, a stronghold of the Ottomans. Two months into the siege, with no end in sight and 4,000 mouths to feed, the Cossack army gathered anything edible that they could find, tossing it all into a pot and stewing it up. Hunger, as it is often said, is the best sauce and everyone seemingly adored their steaming bowls of thick and nourishing vegetable-meat mush, naming it borshch, a play-on-words of the popular fish soup ‘schcherba’. That soup is nothing like borscht, but does come from roughly the same part of the world, give or take a radius of a few hundred kilometres.
A story more likely to be true plants the Ukrainian flag directly in the bowl, though. Despite being known as the ‘Bread Bowl’ of the Soviet Union for its massive wheat production and more than 70 national varieties of bread, modern Ukrainians stake a claim in borscht being theirs – which, in light of certain invasive military forces of late, is not something we’ll quibble here. Plus the word is a derivation of the Slavic borschevik, which means hogweed, a variety of parsley that grows across Ukraine and was most likely used to flavour the dish. Hogweed actually has quite a strong sweet flavour, much like beetroot, with many historians believing that the beets were, at one point, swapped in while the name remained the same.
Regardless of whether you speak to Russians, Ukrainians, or anyone else from the other eastern-European nations that consume borscht, they’re are likely to at least agree on one thing – that the best recipe in the world is the one that their mother makes. And getting that recipe out of them would take the kind of espionage we put to bed at the end of the Cold War.