Borscht (also borsch, bortsch, borstch, borsh, borshch; Ukrainian: борщ) is a soup of Ukrainian origin that is popular in many Eastern and Central European countries. In most of these countries, it is made with beetroot as the main ingredient, giving it a deep reddish-purple colour. In some countries, tomato is used as the main ingredient, while beetroot acts as a secondary ingredient. Other, non-beet varieties also exist, such as the tomato paste-based orange borscht and green borscht (sorrel soup).
- 1 kg beetroot, topped and tailed
- juice of 1 lemon
- 2 litres water or chicken stock (To be kosher: if using the stock you can’t serve with yoghurt or sour cream)
- 3 small potatoes, peeled and diced
- 1 large onion, coarsely chopped
- 1 large bunch of fresh dill, roughly chopped
- 3-4 cups water
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons salt
- sour cream or yoghurt (about 1 dessertspoonful per person)
- Peel the beetroots and place them whole into a large pot. Pour over the juice of half a lemon and add water (or stock) to cover. Place the pot over a medium heat and cook for 40 minutes until the beetroot is tender. The beetroot is cooked when the flesh is tender enough for a knife to cut through to the other side without getting stuck.
- Remove the beetroot from the liquid and cut into small pieces.
- Put the cut beetroot into a large saucepan with the potato, onion and dill. Add sugar and juice of lemon to taste. Season with freshly ground pepper and salt and add three to four cups of water.
- Cover and return to the stove. Bring to the boil then simmer for 20-30 minutes.
- Blend the mixture.
More About Borscht
Borscht is a sour soup popular in several Eastern European cuisines, including Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, Belarusian, Lithuanian, Romanian, and Ashkenazi Jewish cuisines. The variety most commonly associated with the name in English is of Ukrainian origin and includes beetroots as one of the main ingredients, which gives the dish a distinctive red colour. It shares the name, however, with a wide selection of sour-tasting soups without beetroots, such as sorrel-based green borscht, rye-based white borscht and cabbage borscht.
Borscht derives from an ancient soup originally cooked from pickled stems, leaves and umbels of common hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), a herbaceous plant growing in damp meadows, which lent the dish its Slavic name. With time, it evolved into a diverse array of tart soups, among which the beet-based red borscht has become the most popular. It is typically made by combining meat or bone stock with sautéed vegetables, which – as well as beetroots – usually include cabbage, carrots, onions, potatoes and tomatoes. Depending on the recipe, borscht may include meat or fish, or be purely vegetarian; it may be served either hot or cold; and it may range from a hearty one-pot meal to a clear broth or a smooth drink. It is often served with smetana or sour cream, hard-boiled eggs or potatoes, but there exists an ample choice of more involved garnishes and side dishes, such as uszka or pampushky, that can be served with the soup.
Its popularity has spread throughout Eastern Europe and the former Russian Empire, and – by way of migration – to other continents. In North America, borscht is often linked with either Jews or Mennonites, the groups who first brought it there from Europe. Today, several ethnic groups claim borscht, in its various local guises, as their own national dish and consume it as part of ritual meals within Eastern Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Roman Catholic, and Jewish religious traditions.
Ingredients and Preparation
Typical Ukrainian borscht is traditionally made from meat or bone stock, sautéed vegetables, and beet sour (i.e., fermented beetroot juice). Depending on the recipe, some of these components may be omitted or substituted for..
The stock is typically made by boiling meat, bones, or both. Beef, pork or a combination of both are most commonly used, with brisket, ribs, shank and chuck considered to give the most flavourful results, especially if cooked on a high flame. Marrow bones are considered best for the bone stock. Meat stock is usually cooked for about two hours, whereas bone stock takes four to six hours to prepare. Meat and bones are usually removed afterwards and the meat is only added back into the soup about 10–15 minutes before the borscht is done. Some recipes call for smoked meats, resulting in a distinctively smoky borscht, while others use poultry or mutton stock. Fasting varieties are typically made with fish stock to avoid the use of meat, while purely vegetarian recipes often substitute forest mushroom broth for the stock.
The vegetables most commonly added to borscht are beetroots, white cabbage, carrots, parsley root, potatoes, onions and tomatoes. Some recipes may also call for beans, tart apples, turnip, celeriac, zucchini or bell peppers. Parsnip may be used as a substitute for parsley root, and tomato paste is often used as well as or instead of fresh tomatoes. The traditional technique of preparing the soup is to precook the vegetables – by sautéing, braising, boiling or baking – separately from the meat and only then to combine them with the stock. This distinctive feature of borscht derives from the practice of slow cooking in the Russian oven (traditional masonry stove, used for both cooking and heating), wherein the differences in cooking times of individual ingredients had to be taken into account in order to ensure that all components reach doneness at the same time. The importance of this method is reflected in the Russian language, where a variant in which all vegetables are added raw directly into the stock is referred to by the diminutive form borshchok[b] rather than borshch. Vegetables are usually julienned, except for potatoes and zucchini, which are diced. The beetroots may be partially baked before being sprinkled with vinegar or lemon juice to preserve the colour and braised separately from other vegetables. Onions, carrots, parsley root, turnip and other root vegetables are sautéed (traditionally in animal fat, especially lard or butter) and then mixed with tomatoes or tomato paste. Dry beans are boiled separately. Potatoes and cabbage are boiled in the stock for about 15 minutes before the precooked vegetables are added.
The dominant tastes in borscht are sweet and sour. This combination is traditionally obtained by adding beet sour. It is made by covering sliced beetroots with lukewarm preboiled water and allowing bacteria to ferment some of the sugars present in beetroots into dextran (which gives the liquid a slightly viscous consistency), mannitol, acetic acid and lactic acid. Stale rye bread is often added to hasten the process, but usually omitted in Jewish recipes, as chametz (leavened bread) would make the sour unfit for Passover meals. Sugar, salt and lemon juice may be also added to balance the flavour. After about 2–5 days (or 2–3 weeks without the bread), the deep red, sweet and sour liquid may be strained and is ready to use. It is added to borscht shortly before the soup is done, as prolonged boiling would cause the tart flavour to dissipate. The beet sour is known in Slavic languages as kvas[c] (literally ‘sour, acid’; compare kvass) and in Yiddish as rosl (from a Slavic word originally referring to any brine obtained by steeping salted meat or vegetables in water; compare Russian rassol ‘pickle juice’, Polish rosół ‘broth’). Apart from its employment in borscht, it may be also added to prepared horseradish or used as pot roast marinade.
As the traditional method of making borscht with beet sour often requires planning at least several days ahead, many recipes for quicker borscht replace the beet sour with fresh beetroot juice, while the sour taste is imparted by other ingredients, such as vinegar, lemon juice or citric acid, tomatoes, tart apples, dry red wine, dill pickle juice, sauerkraut juice, or a fermented rye flour and water mixture. The soup is typically flavoured with a wide selection of herbs, spices and condiments. Salt, black pepper, garlic, bay leaves and dill are among the most commonly used. Other aromatics often added to borscht include allspice, celery stalks, parsley, marjoram, hot peppers, saffron, horseradish, ginger and prunes. Some recipes require flour or roux to further thicken the borscht. A common opinion is that a good borscht should be thick enough for a spoon to stand upright in it.
As the home country of beetroot borscht, Ukraine boasts great diversity of the soup’s regional variants, with virtually every province having its own recipe. Differences between particular varieties may regard the type of stock used (meat, bone, or both), the kind of meat (beef, pork, poultry, etc.), the choice of vegetables and the method of cutting and cooking them. For example, although the typical recipe calls for beef and pork, the Kiev variant uses mutton or lamb as well as beef, while in the Poltava region, the stock for borscht is cooked on poultry meat, that is, chicken, duck or goose. The use of zucchini, beans and apples is characteristic of the Chernihiv borscht; in this variant, beetroots are sautéed in vegetable oil rather than lard, and the sour taste comes solely from tomatoes and tart apples. The Lviv borscht is based on bone stock and is served with chunks of Vienna sausages.
Many regional recipes for borscht have also developed in Russian cuisine. Examples include the Moscow borscht, served with pieces of beef, ham and Vienna sausages; Siberian borscht with meatballs; and Pskov borscht with dried smelt from the local lakes. Other unique Russian variants include a monastic Lenten borscht with marinated kelp instead of cabbage and the Russian Navy borscht (flotsky borshch), the defining characteristic of which is that the vegetables are cut into square or diamond-shaped chunks rather than julienned.
As well as the thick borschts described above, Polish cuisine offers a ruby-colored beetroot bouillon known as barszcz czysty czerwony, or clear red borscht. It is made by combining strained meat-and-vegetable stock with wild mushroom broth and beet sour. In some versions, smoked meat may be used for the stock and the tartness may be obtained or enhanced by adding lemon juice, dill pickle brine, or dry red wine. It may be served either in a soup bowl or – especially at dinner parties – as a hot beverage in a twin-handled cup, with a croquette or a filled pastry on the side. Unlike other types of borscht, it is not whitened with sour cream. Barszcz wigilijny, or Christmas Eve borscht, is a variant of the clear borscht that is traditionally served during the Polish Christmas Eve supper. In this version, meat stock is either omitted or replaced with fish broth, usually made by boiling the heads cut off from fish used in other Christmas Eve dishes. The mushrooms used for cooking the mushroom broth are reserved for uszka (small filled dumplings), which are then served with the borscht.
Ashkenazi Jews living in Eastern Europe adopted beetroot borscht from their Slavic neighbours and adapted it to their taste and religious requirements. As combining meat with milk is proscribed by kosher dietary laws, Jews have developed two variants of the soup: meat (fleischik) and dairy (milchik). The meat variant is typically made from beef brisket (pork is never used) and cabbage, while the dairy one is vegetarian, blended with sour cream or a mixture of milk and egg yolks. Both variants typically contain beetroots and onions, and are flavoured with beet sour, vinegar or citric acid for tartness and beet sugar for sweetness. Galician Jews traditionally liked their borscht particularly sweet. Jewish borscht may be served either hot or cold, typically with a hot boiled potato on the side. In prewar Eastern Europe it was traditionally put up to ferment around Purim so that it would be ready four weeks later for the Passover holiday.
In the summertime, cold borscht is a popular alternative to the aforementioned variants, which are normally served hot. It consists of beet sour or beet juice blended with sour cream, buttermilk, soured milk, kefir or yoghurt. The mixture has a distinctive pink or magenta colour. It is served refrigerated, typically over finely chopped beetroot, cucumbers, radishes and green onion, together with halves of a hard-boiled egg and sprinkled with fresh dill. Chopped veal, ham, or crawfish tails may be added as well.
This soup probably originated in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which comprised the territories of modern-day Lithuania and Belarus, and it is still part of the culinary traditions of these and neighbouring nations. The Lithuanian language is the only one in the region which actually refers to it as ‘cold borscht’ (šaltibarščiai). In Belarusian it is known simply as khaladnik, or ‘cold soup’; in Polish as chłodnik litewski, or ‘Lithuanian cold soup’; and in Russian as svekolnik, or ‘beetroot soup’.
Although in the English language borscht refers almost invariably to a beet-based soup, in some culinary cultures there exist soups with the same or similar names where beetroots are absent or merely optional. The principal common trait among them is a tart flavour obtained by adding various sour-tasting ingredients.
Green borscht (zeleny borshch), a light soup made from leaf vegetables, is an example common in Ukrainian and Russian cuisines. The naturally tart-tasting sorrel is most commonly used, but spinach, chard, nettle, garden orache and occasionally dandelion, goutweed or ramsons, may be added as well, especially after the spring season for sorrel has passed. Like beetroot borscht, it is based on meat or vegetable broth and is typically served with boiled potatoes and hard-boiled eggs, sprinkled with dill. There is also a variety of Ukrainian green borscht which includes both sorrel and beetroots.
In Polish cuisine, white borscht (barszcz biały, also known as żur or żurek, ‘sour soup’) is made from a fermented mixture of rye flour or oatmeal and water. It is typically flavored with garlic and marjoram, and served over eggs and boiled fresh sausage; the water in which the sausage was boiled is often used instead of meat stock.
In the Carpathian Mountains of southern Poland, variants of borscht are also made in which the tart taste comes from dairy products, such as whey or buttermilk. Although the deep red colour of beetroot borscht may remind those unfamiliar with Polish cuisine of blood, the kind of borscht that does contain animal (usually poultry) blood mixed with vinegar is dark brownish-gray in colour and aptly called “gray borscht” (barszcz szary), which is a regional name of the Polish blood soup better known as czernina.
In Romanian and Moldovan cuisines, a mixture of wheat bran or cornmeal with water that has been left to ferment, similar to that used in Polish white borscht, is called borș. It is used to impart a sour taste to a variety of tangy Romanian soups, known as either also borș or ciorbă. Variants include ciorbă de perișoare (with meatballs), ciorbă de burtă (with tripe), borş de peşte (with fish) and borş de sfeclă roşie (with beetroots).
The Armenian version of borscht is a hot soup made with beef stock, green peppers and other vegetables, which may or may not include beetroots, and flavored with parsley and coriander (cilantro). In ethnic Mennonite cuisine, borscht refers to a whole range of seasonal vegetable soups based on beef or chicken stock – from spring borscht made with spinach, sorrel and chard to summer borscht with cabbage, tomatoes, corn and squash to fall and winter borscht with cabbage, beets and potatoes. In Chinese cuisine, a soup known as luó sòng tāng, or “Russian soup”, is based on red cabbage and tomatoes, and lacks beetroots altogether; also known as “Chinese borscht”, it originated in Harbin, close to the Russian border in northeast China, and has spread as far as Hong Kong. In Shanghai’s Haipai cuisine, tomatoes are the main ingredient; beef and its broth, onions and cabbages are also added, while flour, rather than sour cream, is used for thickening.
Garnishes and sides
The diversity of borscht styles is matched by the wide choice of garnishes and side dishes with which various kinds of borscht may be served.
Most often, borscht is served with sour cream, the East European version of which, known as smetana, is runnier than its American counterpart. The sour cream may be served in a separate pitcher for the diners to add the desired amount themselves or the borscht may come already “whitened”, that is, blended with sour cream. Sometimes the cream is thickened with flour before being added to the soup. Yoghurt and a mixture of milk and yolks are possible substitutes.
Chopped herbs are often sprinkled on the surface of the soup; dill is most common, but parsley, chives or scallion are often added as well. Individual helpings may be spiced up with minced hot peppers or garlic. Many kinds of borscht are served over halves or quarters of hard-boiled chicken or quail eggs. Navy beans, broad beans or string beans are also a common addition.
Meat, removed from the stock on which the borscht was based, may be cut into smaller chunks and either added back into the soup or served on the side with horseradish or mustard. Bacon and sausages are also commonly used as borscht garnishes. Borscht based on bone stock may be served Old Polish style, with marrow from the bones.
Some kinds of the soup, such as Poltava borscht, may be served with halushky, or thick noodles of wheat or buckwheat flour. Siberian borscht is eaten with boiled meatballs (frikadelki) of minced beef and onion. In Poland and parts of western Ukraine, borscht is typically ladled over uszka, or bite-sized ear-shaped dumplings made from pasta dough wrapped around mushroom, buckwheat or meat filling. Mushroom-filled uszka are particularly associated with Polish Christmas Eve borscht.
Borscht, like any other soup in East Slavic cuisines, is seldom eaten by itself, but rather accompanied by a side dish. At a minimum, spoonfuls of borscht are alternated with bites of a slice of bread. Buckwheat groats or boiled potatoes, often topped with pork cracklings, are other simple possibilities, but a range of more involved sides exists as well.
In Ukraine, borscht is often accompanied with pampushky, or savory, puffy yeast-raised rolls glazed with oil and crushed garlic. In Russian cuisine, borscht may be served with any of assorted side dishes based on tvorog, or the East European variant of farmer cheese, such as vatrushki, syrniki or krupeniki. Vatrushki are baked round cheese-filled tarts; syrniki are small pancakes wherein the cheese is mixed into the batter; and a krupenik is a casserole of buckwheat groats baked with cheese.
Pirozhki, or baked dumplings with fillings as for uszka, are another common side for both hearty and clear variants of borscht. Polish clear borscht may be also served with a croquette or paszteciki. A typical Polish croquette (krokiet) is made by wrapping a crêpe (thin pancake) around a filling and coating it in breadcrumbs before refrying; paszteciki (literally, ‘little pâtés’) are variously shaped filled hand-held pastries of yeast-raised or flaky dough. An even more exquisite way to serve borscht is with a coulibiac, or a large loaf-shaped pie. Possible fillings for croquettes, paszteciki and coulibiacs include mushrooms, sauerkraut and minced meat.
Borscht derives from a soup originally made by the Slavs from common hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium, also known as cow parsnip), which lent the dish its Slavic name. Growing commonly in damp meadows throughout the north temperate zone, hogweed was used not only as fodder (as its English names suggest), but also for human consumption – from Eastern Europe to Siberia, to northwestern North America.
The Slavs collected hogweed in May and used its roots for stewing with meat, while the stems, leaves and umbels were chopped, covered with water and left in a warm place to ferment. After a few days, lactic and alcoholic fermentation produced a mixture described as “something between beer and sauerkraut”. This concoction was then used for cooking a soup characterized by a mouth-puckering sour taste and pungent smell. As the Polish ethnographer Łukasz Gołębiowski wrote in 1830, “Poles have been always partial to tart dishes, which are somewhat peculiar to their homeland and vital to their health.”
The earliest written reference to the Slavic hogweed soup can be found in Domostroy (Domestic Order), a 16th-century Russian compendium of moral rules and homemaking advice. It recommends growing the plant “by the fence, around the whole garden, where the nettle grows”, to cook a soup of it in springtime and reminds the reader to, “for the Lord’s sake, share it with those in need”. Simon Syrenius (Szymon Syreński), a 17th-century Polish botanist, described “our Polish hogweed” as a vegetable that was well known throughout Poland, Rus’, Lithuania and Samogitia (that is, most of the northern part of Eastern Europe), typically used for cooking a “tasty and graceful soup” with capon stock, eggs, sour cream and millet. More interested in the plant’s medicinal properties than its culinary use, he also recommended pickled hogweed juice as a cure for fever or hangover.
Hogweed borscht was mostly a poor man’s food. The soup’s humble beginnings are still reflected in Polish fixed expressions, where “cheap like borscht” is the equivalent of “dirt cheap” (also attested as a calque in Yiddish and Canadian English), whereas adding “two mushrooms into borscht” is synonymous with excess. For the professors of the University of Kraków, who led a monastic way of life in the 17th century, hogweed borscht was a fasting dish which they ate regularly (sometimes with deviled eggs) from Lent till Rogation days. It was uncommon on the royal table, although according to the 16th-century Polish botanist Marcin of Urzędów – citing Giovanni Manardo, a court physician to the Jagiellonian kings of Hungary – the Polish-born King Vladislaus II used to have a Polish hogweed-based dish prepared for him at his court in Buda.
With time, other ingredients were added to the soup, eventually replacing hogweed altogether, and the names borshch or barszcz became generic terms for any sour-tasting soup. In 19th-century rural Poland, this term included soups made from barberries, currants, gooseberries, cranberries, celery or plums.
When describing the uses of common hogweed, John Gerard, a 17th-century English botanist, observed that “the people of [Poland] and Lithuania [used] to make drink with the decoction of this herb and leaven or some other thing made of meal, which is used instead of beer and other ordinary drink.” It may suggest that hogweed soup was on some occasions combined with a fermented mixture of water and barley flour, oatmeal or rye flour. Such soured, gelatinous flour-and-water mixture, originally known as kissel (from the Proto-Slavic root *kyslŭ, ‘sour’) had been already mentioned in The Tale of Bygone Years, a 12th-century chronicle of Kievan Rus’, and continued to be a staple of Ukrainian and Russian cooking until the middle of the 19th century. In Poland, a soup based on diluted kissel became known as either żur (from Middle High German sur ‘sour’) or barszcz and later – to distinguish it from the red beetroot borscht – as barszcz biały ‘white borscht’.
The earliest known Polish recipes for borscht, written by chefs catering to Polish magnates (aristocrats), are from the late 17th century. Stanisław Czerniecki, head chef to Prince Aleksander Michał Lubomirski, included several borscht recipes in his Compendium ferculorum (A Collection of Dishes), the first cookbook published originally in Polish, in 1682. They include such sour soups as lemon borscht and “royal borscht”, the latter made from assorted dried, smoked or fresh fish and fermented rye bran. A manuscript recipe collection from the Radziwiłł family court, dating back to ca. 1686, contains an instruction for making hogweed borscht mixed with poppy seeds or ground almonds. As this was a Lenten dish, it was garnished, in a trompe-l’œil fashion typical of Baroque cuisine, with mock eggs made from finely chopped pike that was partly dyed with saffron and formed into oval balls. An alternative recipe for the almond borscht replaced pickled hogweed with vinegar..
Borscht also evolved into a variety of sour soups to the east of Poland. Examples include onion borscht, a recipe for which was included in a 1905 Russian cookbook, and sorrel-based green borscht, which is still a popular summer soup in Ukraine and Russia. A Gift to Young Housewives by Elena Molokhovets, the best-selling Russian cookbook of the 19th century, first published in 1861, contains nine recipes for borscht, some of which are based on kvass, a traditional Slavic fermented beverage made from rye bread. Kvass-based variants were also known in Ukraine at that time; some of them were types of green borscht, while others were similar to the Russian okroshka.
Before the advent of beet-based borscht, cabbage borscht was of particular importance. Made from either fresh cabbage or sauerkraut, it could be indistinguishable from the Russian shchi. Indeed, the mid-19th-century Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language defines borshch as “a kind of shchi” with beet sour added for tartness. The significance of cabbage as an essential ingredient of borscht is manifest in the Ukrainian proverb, “without bread, it’s no lunch; without cabbage, it’s no borscht.”
Beet (Beta vulgaris), a plant native to the Mediterranean Basin, was already grown in antiquity. Only the leaves were of culinary use, as the tapered, tough, whitish and bitter-tasting root was considered unfit for human consumption. It is likely that beet greens were used in variants of green borscht long before the invention of the beetroot-based red borscht. Beet varieties with round, red, sweet taproots, known as beetroots, were not reliably reported until the 12th century and did not spread to Eastern Europe before the 16th century. Mikołaj Rej, a Polish Renaissance poet and moralist, included the earliest known Polish recipe for pickled beetroots in his 1568 book, Life of an Honest Man. It would later evolve into ćwikła, or chrain mit burik, a beet-and-horseradish relish popular in Polish and Jewish cuisines. Rej also recommended the “very tasty brine” left over from beetroot pickling, which was an early version of beet sour. The sour found some applications in Polish folk medicine as a cure for hangover and – mixed with honey – as a sore throat remedy.
It may never be known who first thought of using beet sour to flavour borscht, which also gave the soup its now-familiar red color. Jerzy Samuel Bandtkie’s Polish-German dictionary published in 1806 was the first to define barszcz as a tart soup made from pickled beetroots. The fact that certain 19th-century Russian and Polish cookbooks, such as Handbook of the Experienced Russian Housewife (1842) by Yekaterina Avdeyeva and The Lithuanian Cook (1854) by Wincenta Zawadzka, refer to beetroot-based borscht as “Little Russian borscht” (where “Little Russian” is a term used at the time for ethnic Ukrainians under imperial Russian rule) suggests that this innovation took place in what is now Ukraine, whose soils and climate are particularly well suited to beet cultivation. Ukrainian legends, probably of 19th-century origin, attribute the invention of beetroot borscht either to Zaporozhian Cossacks, serving in the Polish army, on their way to break the siege of Vienna in 1683, or to Don Cossacks, serving in the Russian army, while laying siege to Azov in 1695.
Spanish conquistadors brought potatoes and tomatoes from the Americas to Europe in the 16th century, but these vegetables only became commonly grown and consumed in Eastern Europe in the 19th century. Eventually, both became staples of peasant diet and essential ingredients of Ukrainian and Russian borscht. Potatoes replaced turnips in borscht recipes, and tomatoes – fresh, canned or paste – took over from beet sour as the source of tartness. The turnip is rarely found in modern recipes, and even then, together with potatoes. In Ukraine, beet sour and tomatoes were both used for some time until the latter ultimately prevailed during the last third of the 19th century.
Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, borscht’s popularity spread beyond its Slavic homeland, largely due to such factors as territorial expansion of the Russian Empire, Russia’s growing political clout and cultural stature, and waves of emigration out of the country. As Russia grew to cover most of northern and central Eurasia, borscht was introduced to the cuisines of various peoples inhabiting the territories both within and adjacent to the empire, from Finland to the Caucasus and Iran, to Central Asia and China, and to Alaska (Russian America).
Borscht’s westward expansion was less successful; Germans used to scoff at the soup along with other East European fare. What helped familiarize Western Europe with borscht was the practice of Russian emperors, as well as Russian and Polish aristocrats, to employ celebrated French chefs, who later presented their own versions of the dish as a foreign curiosity back in France. One of the first French chefs to do so was Marie-Antoine Carême, who worked briefly for Emperor Alexander I in 1819. In his take on borscht, the original Russian soup served only as inspiration for an extravagant haute cuisine dish with an air of eastern exoticism. Apart from vegetables and beet sour, his recipe calls for a roast chicken, a fried chicken, a duck, a piece of veal, an oxtail, a marrow bone, one pound of bacon, and six large sausages, and suggests serving with beef quenelles, deviled eggs, and croûtons. Auguste Escoffier, Carême’s apprentice, who was mostly fascinated by the soup’s vivid ruby-red colour, simplified his master’s recipe, while also securing the place of potage bortsch (“borscht soup”) in French cuisine. Urbain Dubois and Émile Bernard, both of whom had been employed at Polish aristocratic courts, presented borscht to the French public as a Polish soup; their cookbook, La cuisine classique, published in 1856, contains a borscht recipe under the descriptive name, potage au jus de betteraves à la polonaise (“Polish-style beet-juice soup”), which had been changed to potage barsch à la polonaise by the third edition in 1868. In 1867, beetroot borscht was served, along with herrings, sturgeon, coulibiac, Pozharsky cutlets and vinaigrette salad, at a Russian-themed dinner at the International Exposition in Paris, strengthening its international association with Russian culture.
Mass migration from the Russian Empire to North America – initially mosty by members of persecuted religious minorities – was instrumental in bringing borscht across the Atlantic. The earliest waves of migration occurred at a time when cabbage-based borscht was still the dominant variant of the soup in at least parts of Russia. The Mennonites, who began arriving in Canada and the United States from Russia’s Volga region in the 1870s, still eschew beetroots in their borscht; instead, Mennonite varieties include Komst Borscht (with cabbage or sauerkraut) and Somma Borscht (sorrel-based “summer borscht”). According to the Jewish Encyclopedia published in 1906, cabbage-based kraut borscht was also more popular than the beet-based variant in American Jewish cuisine at the time. Subsequent Jewish immigration helped popularize the red borscht in America.
In the 1930s, when most American hotels refused to accept Jewish guests due to widespread anti-Semitism, New York Jews began flocking to Jewish-owned resorts in the Catskill Mountains for their summer vacations. The area grew into a major center of Jewish entertainment, with restaurants offering all-you-can-eat Ashkenazi Jewish fare, including copious amounts of borscht. Grossinger’s, one of the largest resorts, served borscht throughout the day, every day of the year. The region became known, initially in derision, as the “Borscht Belt”, reinforcing the popular association between borscht and American Jewish culture. As most visitors arrived in the summertime, the borscht was typically served cold. Marc Gold was one of its largest suppliers, producing 1,750 short tons (1,590 tonnes) a year in his business’s heyday. Gold’s borscht consists of puréed beetroots seasoned with sugar, salt and citric acid; it is usually blended with sour cream and served as a refreshing beverage, more aptly described as a “beet smoothie”. Such kind of “purplish, watery broth” is, according to Nikolai Burlakoff, author of The World of Russian Borsch, “associated in America with borsch, in general, and Jewish borsch in particular.”
In the Soviet Union, borscht was one of the most popular everyday dishes. It was described by James Meek, a British correspondent in Kiev and Moscow, as “the common denominator of the Soviet kitchen, the dish that tied together … the high table of the Kremlin and the meanest canteen in the boondocks of the Urals, … the beetroot soup that pumped like a main artery through the kitchens of the east Slav lands”. Among Soviet leaders, the Ukrainian-born Leonid Brezhnev was especially partial to borscht, which his wife continued to personally cook for him even after they had moved into the Kremlin.
The soup has even played a role in the Soviet space program. In March 1961, as part of a communications equipment test, a pre-recorded recipe for borscht was broadcast from the Korabl-Sputnik 4 spacecraft. The craft, carrying animals and a mannequin, had been launched into low Earth orbit in preparation for manned space flights. Actual borscht eventually made its way into outer space as space food for Soviet and, later, Russian cosmonauts. Originally, a puréed version of borscht was supplied in tubes. All ingredients for the space borscht (which include beef, beetroots, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, onions, parsley root and tomato paste) were cooked separately, then combined one by one in strictly controlled order, sterilized, packed into tubes, sealed airtight and autoclaved. In the 1970s, the tubes were replaced with packages of rehydratable freeze-dried borscht with regular-size bits of cooked vegetables.
As a ritual dish
Borscht is often associated with its role in religious traditions of various denominations (Eastern Orthodox, Greek and Roman Catholic, and Jewish) that are common in Eastern Europe. In East Slavic countries, “memorial borscht” is served as the first course at a post-funeral wake. According to a traditional belief, the soul of the departed either feeds on or is carried up to heaven by puffs of steam rising from bowls of borscht and other hot dishes, such as blini, porridge, boiled potatoes or freshly baked bread. In the region of Polesye, straddling the Belarusian-Ukrainian border, the same steaming-hot dishes, including borscht, are given as an offering to the souls of deceased ancestors during the annual semi-pagan remembrance ceremony known as Dzyady or Forefathers’ Night.
In Poland and Ukraine, borscht is usually one of the dishes served at a Christmas Eve dinner. Celebrated after the first star has appeared in the sky on December 24 (Roman Catholic) or January 6 (Greek Catholic), it is a meal which is at the same time festive and fasting, a multicourse affair (traditionally, with twelve distinct dishes) that excludes ingredients of land-animal origin. Christmas Eve borscht is, therefore, either vegetarian or based on fish stock and is not typically mixed with sour cream. In Ukraine, the soup contains vegetables that are sautéed in vegetable oil rather than lard, as well as beans and mushrooms. It may be also thickened with wheat flour dry-roasted in a pan instead of the usual roux. The Polish version of Christmas Eve borscht is a clear ruby-red broth. Both Ukrainian and Polish variants are often served with uszka.
While Christmas in Poland is traditionally linked to red borscht, Lent – the fasting period that leads up to Easter – is associated with a meatless version of white borscht, or żur. Youths used to celebrate Holy Saturday, the last day of the fast, with a mock “funeral” of the white borscht, in which a pot of the soup was either buried in the ground or broken, sometimes – to the crowd’s amusement – while being carried by an unsuspecting boy on his head. On the next day, the white borscht would reappear on the Easter table, but this time, in its more coveted, meat-based guise with sausage, bacon and eggs.
In Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, vegetarian borscht served with sour cream and boiled potatoes on the side, known as peysakhdiker borsht, is considered an essential dish during the Passover period. As the holiday is observed in spring (March or April), the preparation of Passover borscht used to provide an opportunity to use up the beet sour left over from pickled beetroots that had been consumed during winter, remaining potatoes that had been stored throughout the winter and sour cream that was readily available in the new calving season. Cold borscht blended with sour cream is also popular on Shavuot (Feast of Weeks), a holiday customarily associated with dairy foods, observed in late May or early June. Seudah Shlishit, or the third meal of the Shabbat, often includes borscht as well.
As an ethnic dish
Borscht is associated with and claimed by several ethnic groups, especially Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, Lithuanians and Ashkenazi Jews, as their own national or ethnic dish and cultural icon Such claims are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as the soup’s history predates the emergence in Eastern Europe of modern nation states with their ever-shifting borders. Borscht, in the words of Burlakoff, “is perfectly suited to a global culture.” He describes it as “a global phenomenon”, in which “local variants are so numerous and diverse that it is hard sometimes for a non-specialist to grasp that any single example of it is something that is part of a unified tradition.” In his view, borscht “is an almost perfect example of … ‘glocalization’ – a phenomenon that is global in distribution but reflective of local needs and ways in its variants and adaptation; … a highly localized product that became globalized, and in the process adapted to conditions other than the original ones.” However, according to Irina Perianova, a Russian linguist and anthropologist, “people tend to be very proprietal about their food and proud of it.” A “connection between culinary and territorial claims” may be observed, which results in the culinary area turning into “a battlefield generating and proliferating all kinds of myths.”
In its currently most popular, beet-based version, borscht most likely originated in what is now Ukraine. Borscht’s role as a staple of everyday Ukrainian diet is reflected in the Ukrainian saying, “borscht and porridge are our food” (compare the equivalent Russian saying, where borscht is replaced with shchi). The hearty soup in which the beetroot is just one of sundry vegetables, as opposed to the typically Polish clear beet broth, is still known in Poland as “Ukrainian borscht”.
In the Soviet Union, government-sponsored cookbooks, such as The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food curated by Anastas Mikoyan, Cookery and Directory of Recipes and Culinary Production, promoted a unified Soviet cuisine with standardized and nutritionally “rational” versions of traditional dishes. The same cooking techniques and recipes were taught in culinary vocational schools throughout the country, establishing a common cooking style in Soviet cafés and restaurants. Though inspired by the cuisines of the country’s various ethnic groups, many recipes were presented as part of an overall Soviet heritage, disassociated from their individual geographic origins. By many people both inside and outside the Soviet Union, borscht was increasingly seen not as an ethnic Ukrainian soup, but as a Soviet or – metonymically – Russian dish. This approach was criticized by William Pokhlebkin, a preeminent Russian food writer, who unequivocally described beet-based borscht as one of the “dishes of Ukrainian cookery” which “have entered the menu of international cuisine”. “One could understand”, he wrote, “and forgive foreigners for calling borscht or varenyky Russian national dishes, but when it turns out that they gleaned the information from Soviet cookbooks or from restaurant menus, one is embarrassed for our authors and chefs, who popularize the national cuisines of our peoples [that is, the ethnic groups of the Soviet Union] with such ignorance.”
According to Meek,
Pokhlebkin and the Soviet Union are dead, yet Borshchland lives on. Recipes, like birds, ignore political boundaries. … The faint outline of the Tsarist-Soviet imperium still glimmers in the collective steam off bowls of beetroot and cabbage in meat stock, and the soft sound of dollops of sour cream slipping into soup, from the Black Sea to the Sea of Japan and, in emigration, from Brooklyn to Berlin.