Among the many soups of traditional Russian cuisine, borscht (борщ), of Ukrainian origin, is undoubtedly the king of soups. The borscht recipes are really numerous, the only common ingredient is naturally the beet which gives it this typical red-purple color. Borscht is also one of twelve traditional dishes on the Polish Christmas Eve table.
How to make borscht
Beneath the smooth and homogeneous surface, traditionally accompanied by smetana and a few fresh sprigs of parsley or dill, is a rich and substantial base composed of meats, usually pork and beef, onions, garlic, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and tomato purée.
Although there are many variations of borscht, which can also be prepared with veal or chicken and enriched with vegetables, potatoes or legumes, the real distinctive sign is obviously represented by the inevitable beetroot. It is in fact that this tuber that gives all the sweetness and delicacy to this colorful soup.
Borscht belongs to the family of “sour soups”, that is to say soups with a tangy flavor. Indeed, apart from the beet, all borschts are sour.
Each housewife has her recipe. However, most recipes recommend adding vinegar, a hint of citric acid, and/or lemon.
Other recipes recommend using only vinegar-fermented vegetables that will give the borscht its characteristic tangy taste.
What is the origin of borscht?
It is commonly accepted that borscht is native to Ukraine and is an integral part of the cuisines of several countries in Eastern and Central Europe.
Although this soup is known as a traditional Russian recipe, its true origin is in Ukraine. But the dispute does not end there, as countries like Lithuania, Moldova, Poland and Romania also consider this soup as their national dish, and that is why there are many variations of borscht.
In the past, borscht was called “hogweed stew”. Native to the Caucasus region (Georgia, Russia), giant hogweed, an herb growing in wet meadows, which gave the dish its Slavic name, is a plant that was introduced to Europe during the 19th century, period during which several botanical gardens mention a large umbellifer.
In the world, giant hogweed is mainly present in European countries, but it is also found in North America and Australia.
Today giant hogweed is considered an invasive and dangerous plant because it can create such plant cover that it prevents all other plants from growing.
Above all, the greatest danger of giant hogweed is its photosensitizing action. It contains toxic substances which are activated by sunlight and make the skin very sensitive to the action of the sun.
After contact with the juice of the plant and under the effect of exposure to the sun, skin lesions develop in a few days leading to a second degree burn.
This borscht based on giant hogweed was, at the time, called “white borscht”. Over time, giant hogweed was excluded from borscht and it became a diverse range of tart soups, among which the most popular beetroot-based red borscht.
At the end of the 19th century, borscht was brought to Eastern Europe and America by Jewish immigrants, who were fleeing persecution.
If today the most famous ingredient in borscht is beet, it was not composed of this ingredient at its inception. Indeed, between the 5th and the 9th century, the dish consisted of a simple broth made from the leaves of a plant typical of Slavic countries, which would have given birth to the term bortshtch.
Over time, new ingredients, such as cabbage, were added to the recipe. Thus, borscht ceased to be a dish consumed only by peasants, and started to get the interest of the nobles.
There are several legends about how beetroot was used as the main ingredient in borscht, without any evidence of their veracity but what is known for sure however is that it did not happen before mid-sixteenth century, as there were no beets in the area.
Today, the most accepted version is that the addition of beets to borscht would have been an idea of the Ukrainian peoples who lived under Russian domination between the 17th and the 18th centuries, which explains where the confusion on the origin of the dish comes from.
At that time, the recipe was to first prepare a fermented beet, boil it in a clay cauldron, and then add the beet itself, cabbage, carrots and any other vegetable available. The Ukrainians also added bone broth to the mix and a few pieces of pork, beef and/or chicken.
With beetroot as the main ingredient, borscht continued to change and received new ingredients, such as tomatoes, potatoes, onions and lemon juice, in addition to a cold serving version.
In North America, borscht is often linked to the Jews or the Mennonites, the two groups that brought it first from Europe.
It is for this reason that, even in North America, several ethnic groups claim borscht, in its different local forms, as their own national dish consumed within the framework of ritual meals for example in the religious traditions of Eastern Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Jews.
By the way, the English word borscht, comes from Yiddish באָרשט (borsht), because the dish was first popularized in North America by Ashkenazi Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe.
The different variants of borscht
Being the precursors of borsch, Ukrainians have a wide variety of regional variants of this soup. Almost every province has its own recipe.
The differences between all versions often concern the type of broth used (meat, bone or both), the type of meat (beef, pork, poultry, etc.), the choice of vegetables and the method of cutting and cooking.
For example, although the traditional recipe calls for beef and pork, the Kiev variant uses mutton or lamb as well as beef, while in the Poltava region, about 200 miles (300 km) southeast of Kiev, the broth is cooked with poultry, chicken, turkey, duck or goose.
In Chernihiv, a town on the right bank of the Desna, 80 miles (130 km) north of Kiev, the use of zucchini, beans and apples is characteristic and in this variant, the beets are sautéed in vegetable oil, and the sour taste comes only from tomatoes and tart apples.
In Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, near the Polish border, borscht is based on bone broth and is served with pieces of Vienna sausage.
Many regional recipes have also emerged in Russian cuisines.
For example, Moscow borscht, served with pieces of beef, ham and Vienna sausages, or even Siberian borsch with meatballs.
Also Pskov borscht with smelt dried, smelt exclusively caught in local waters.
Other unique Russian variants include monastic Lenten borscht with marinated kelp, not cabbage, as well as flotsky borscht (borscht from the Russian Navy), the main characteristic of which is that all vegetables are cut into diamond or square pieces.
When it comes to Polish borsch, the must-have for Christmas, it is served with uszka, a kind of ravioli stuffed with tasty wild mushrooms and/or grounnd meat.
Polish cuisine also offers a beet broth called barszcz czysty czerwony (light red borsch) consisting of a meat and vegetable broth with a broth of wild mushrooms and fermented beet. Smoked meat is sometimes used and a lot of lemon juice is added, dill pickles with their brine or dry red wine.
The barszcz wigilijny (borsch of Christmas Eve), is a variant of light borscht which is traditionally served during the dinner of Christmas Eve in Poland.
In the Carpathians of southern Poland, variants of borsch are also produced in which the tangy taste comes from dairy products, such as whey or buttermilk. Although the dark red color of this borsch may be due to beetroot, it also contains animal blood (usually poultry) mixed with vinegar and is dark brownish gray in color and aptly named barszcz szary, meaning “grey borscht”.
Lithuanian cold borsch is called Šaltibarščiai. It is mixed with sour cream, kefir and/or yogurt. It is sprinkled with chives and in the summer, it is served cold and is pink in color.
The khaladnik is the Belarusian version, also meaning “cold soup”. The same version is called chłodnik litewski in Poland or svekolnik in Russia, svekolnik meaning beet therefore by extension beet soup.
After the white borsch and the red borsch, there is a third variant, the green borsch (zeleny borshch). It is a light soup made from leafy vegetables, popular in Ukrainian and Russian cuisines. Sorrel with a naturally sour taste is the plant whose leaves are most commonly used. We often add spinach, chard, nettles, and/or sometimes dandelions.
Like beet borsch, it is made with meat or vegetable broth and is traditionally served with boiled potatoes and boiled eggs, all generously sprinkled with dill.
There is also a variety of green borsch in Ukraine that is made up of both sorrel and green vegetables and beetroot.
In Polish cuisine, barszcz biały (white borsch) also known as żur or żurek, meaning “sour soup”, is made from a fermented mixture of rye flour or oatmeal and water. It is usually flavored with garlic and marjoram, and served over boiled fresh eggs and sausage. The water in which the sausage was boiled is often used in place of the meat broth.
This mixture is also used to give a sour taste to a variety of tart Romanian soups, also known as borș or ciorbă. Variants of these borschts include ciorbă de perișoare (with meatballs), ciorbă de burtă (with tripe), borş de peşte (with fish) and borş de sfeclă roşie (with beets).
Chinese borscht is called luó sòng tāng (“Russian soup”) and is very popular in Hong Kong. It consists of red cabbage and tomatoes, never with beets. Also known as “Chinese borscht”, it is native to Harbin, near the Russian border in northeast China, and has spread to Hong Kong.
In Shanghai’s Haipai cuisine, tomatoes are the main ingredient. Beef and broth, onions and cabbage are also added while flour, rather than sour cream, is used for thickening.
The Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian versions of borscht are always served hot and are made with beef broth, green pepper and other vegetables, which do not necessarily include beetroot and which are flavored with chopped red pepper and cilantro.
Ashkenazi Jews living in Eastern Europe adopted the beetroot borscht from their Slavic neighbors and adapted it to their tastes but also and above all to their religious requirements. Indeed, since the mixture of meat and milk being prohibited by the Jewish religion, the Jews developed two variants of borscht: fleischik (with meat) and milchik (with milk).
The meat variant is obviously pork-free and usually based on beef breast and cabbage, while the milk version is mixed with sour cream or a mixture of milk and egg yolks.
Both of these recipes obviously contain beets as well as lots of onions, and are flavored with either sour beet in brine, vinegar or citric acid. Galician Jews love their borscht particularly sweet.
In Ashkenazi Jewish traditions, borscht can be served hot or cold, with a hot boiled potato on the side.
In pre-war Eastern Europe, borsch was fermented. It was traditionally fermented around the festival of Purim so that it would be ready four weeks later for the festival of Passover (Jewish Passover).
Borscht (борщ), is a soup of Ukrainian origin, prepared in several countries of Eastern Europe. It traditionally contains beetroot, which gives it its characteristic burgundy red color.
- ½ lb beef shank with bone cut into pieces
- ½ lb pork shank with bone cut into pieces
- 8 cups water
- ¾ lb raw beetroot grated
- ⅓ lb onions grated
- 1 clove garlic crushed
- ⅔ lb potatoes diced
- ¼ lb carrots grated
- ½ lb cabbage grated
- 2 teaspoons tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons neutral vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped dill
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon caster sugar
- 1 lemon freshly squeezed (or 6 tablespoons of vinegar)
- In a large pot, add the water and bring it to a boil.
- Immerse all the pieces of meat and 1 bay leaf in simmering water. Cook over medium heat for 20 minutes.
- Then lower the heat and cook over low heat for 1 hour, skimming off the foam that could eventually form.
- Add the carrots and potatoes to the pot. Mix well and cook for 5 minutes.
- Add the cabbage and mix well.
- Season with salt and pepper and add the garlic, half the parsley and half the dill.
- Cook over low to medium heat and covered for 15 minutes.
- In a Dutch oven over medium heat, sweat the onion and add the beetroot and mix the two well. Sauté for 2 minutes and add this mixture to the pot.
- Add the sugar, and the second bay leaf and mix well.
- Cook for 2 minutes, covered, then add the lemon juice and the tomato paste and mix well.
- Cover and cook for 10 minutes over low heat, stirring regularly.
- Turn off the heat and let stand for 15 to 20 minutes before serving with smetana on top.
- Sprinkle the rest of the parsley and dill.