In the beginning there was the weed Heracleum sphondylium, aka common hogweed or borshchevik in Ukranian. The Borschchahivka River flows through Kyiv and it, no doubt, was lined with this plant, a wild rank weed related to carrots and parsnips that loves wet places. As far back as 1500 years ago the leaves, stalks and flowers were chopped and fermented in a brine to produce a green soup tasting something between sour beer and sauerkraut. This early borscht was no doubt enjoyed widely by Central European Slavic tribes in the years before nation states.
Borscht (also spelled borshch) eventually evolved to include many of the vegetables people stored for the winter-- cabbage, potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, onions, garlic-- and was boiled up with bones and meats into a great sour winter soup. It did not contain beets. Red beets as we know them did not appear in Eastern Europe until the 1500's. Most versions of borscht now contain beets; some do not. When beets did arrive, they too were chopped and fermented and contributed to borscht's sour flavor.
Borscht as a poor foraged peasant soup rocketed to fame when it was adopted and adapted by Marie-Antoine Carême, the first international celebrity chef. Working for the powerful, rich and famous all over Europe he invented haute cuisine and cemented his fame with several books including The Art of French Cuisine in the 19th Century (printed in five volumes). In 1819 he was employed as the the chef for Russian Emperor Alexander I. Carême enhanced common borscht with roast and stewed chicken, also duck, veal, oxtail, marrow bones, bacon and sausage and then topped with beef dumplings (quenelles), deviled eggs and croutons. Borscht was transformed from fermented weeds into an exotic meat stew for the rich and powerful.
Starting in the 1870's, Mennonite and Ashkenazi Jewish refugees, fleeing religious persecution, migrated to Canada and America. They brought their well-loved traditional borscht. From the 1920's through 60's Jewish residents of New York flocked to the Catskill Mountains for vacations. They stayed in Jewish resorts and ate in Jewish restaurants where borscht was served all day, every day. The Catskills became known as the "Borscht Belt."
In the same time period, back in the USSR, the Stalinist culture machine worked to establish a uniform Soviet cuisine that would unite the disparate Soviet nationalities. Borscht was at its center. Borscht was celebrated 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 the main artery through the kitchen of the east Slav lands." * Borscht (in a tube) even made it into the Soviet space program as homey food for the cosmonauts.
In Ukraine borscht was eaten three times a day; for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everyone's grandma had their favorite recipe. Last year, 2022, the Russians invaded Ukraine and the United Nations placed borscht on the list of "Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding." Ukranian borscht is endangered! The UNESCO description describes borscht as a centuries old tradition that unites people of all ages, genders and backgrounds. In the region of Podillia the third day of a wedding is named do nevistky – na borshch. That means ‘visit daughter-in-law to eat borscht’. Borscht is also celebrated in folk tales, songs and proverbs. The Russian invasion threatened the status of borscht as a part of Ukraine’s cultural heritage.
Several other ethnic and national groups passionately claim borscht as their own cultural icon. Several religious traditions serve it with ritual significance. In Eastern Slavic countries "Memorial borscht" is served at wakes; the soul of the departed floats to heaven on its steam. "Peysakhdiker Borsht" is an essential dish during the Jewish Passover celebration. In the Belarusian-Ukranian border area steaming borscht is offered to the souls of the departed.
In the early 1900's Eastern Europeans moved to big cities in China. As a result, there is a popular Shanghai Chinese version of borscht called Luo Song Tang, (which translates to "Russian soup") made with oxtails and western ingredients like potatoes and tomatoes but no beets. Borscht exemplifies the concept glocalization-- at the same time, both local and global.
What is borscht? There are thousands of recipes-- meaty, smoked, vegetarian; served hot or cold, with diverse additions of beets, greens, cabbage, potatoes, beans, mushrooms, dumplings, carrots, tomatoes and etcetera. It is typically sour which can come from fermented beets or cabbage, sauerkraut or kvass, lemon juice, vinegar, tomatoes, even Granny Smith apples! It is typically earthy sweet from beets or other vegetables and is spiced with pepper, bay leaf and garlic, and maybe dill, horseradish or allspice. Borscht is usually topped with sour cream (though I like thick buttermilk), which creates a beautiful play of red-white swirl patterns and flavors.
I thought this was going to be a simple story about a simple beet soup but you see borscht is a soup with many stories. Borscht has come so far and spread so widely. It is loved, revered and honored by so many. It's delicious. For the new year, why not serve borscht to symbolize solidarity with the Ukranian people? Offer a borscht toast to their courageous resistance and wish them warmth, health and peace.
* The Story of Borshch, James Meek, The Guardian
Let Me Count the Ways of Making Borscht, Olia Hercules, New Yorker
Spiced Mushroom Borscht, Sarah Karnasiewicz, LA Times
Shanghai-Style Red Vegetable Soup- Luo Song Tang, 罗宋汤
This vegetarian recipe was given to me over 25 years ago by my friend Jean Ward. It was a family recipe from her Russian dad and her Ukranian/Polish mother. They lived in Ukraine. Borscht was served on a daily basis. Jean remembers her mother adding beans to the recipe and mushroom filled dumplings. But Jean prefers the "old recipe," this one. This is the recipe I love and have been making all these years. I made my own little change, adding cauliflower instead of cabbage. The carrot, celery and dill hearken back to the original Hogweed, as they are all members of the same plant family. Serves 6-8.
1-ounce dried mushrooms OR 4-ounces fresh mushrooms, sliced
2 onions, chopped
2 Tablespoons olive or other vegetable oil
2 medium beets, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 carrot, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups chopped cauliflower or cabbage
1 Tablespoon kosher salt, to taste
Garnish: Sour cream or thick buttermilk and finely chopped dill
If using dried mushrooms, simmer them in 3 cups water for 15 minutes. Set aside. Sauté fresh mushrooms in oil until golden. Add onions and sauté until lightly browned. Add beets, carrot and celery, sauté 5 minutes. Add 6 cups boiling water, bay leaf, pepper, lemon juice and tomato paste and simmer for 15 minutes. If using dried mushrooms, drain them, reserving stock. Then coarsely chop them. Add mushroom stock and mushrooms to soup. Add cabbage or cauliflower and simmer another 20 minutes.
Taste and adjust seasoning with salt, pepper, and/or lemon juice as needed. Cool to let flavors blend. Can be served cold or hot. Garnish with a dollop of sour cream or a streak of thick buttermilk. Sprinkle with finely chopped dill.
Chef Molly Beverly is Prescott's leading creative food activist and teacher. Photos by Gary Beverly.