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Borsch — a quintessential dish of Ukrainian cuisine
If you happen to visit Kyiv and if, during your stay, you happen to get so hungry that you want to rush to a quick-food restaurant to take the edge off your appetite, don’t go to a McDonald’s — find any of the eateries, of which there are a few downtown and which offer dishes of Ukrainian cuisine. It’ll give you a good chance of sampling some of the typical Ukrainian traditional dishes, and though an eatery is an eatery, even the best one, and thus cannot hold a handle to dishes cooked at home, you’ll be able to appreciate how delicious and wholesome Ukrainian cuisine is.
There are a lot of jokes about Ukrainians’ predilection for salo, or hard pork fat, but salo happens to be only one of the many foods and dishes Ukrainians enjoy cooking and consuming.
It is probably borsch (áîðù — pronounced bor-shtch) that could be regarded one of the principle Ukrainian culinary inventions, something like pizza for the Italians or goose liver for the French. To cook borsch is not that easy. It may take some time and some basic cooking skills, and may involve up to 20 ingredients. But before we give some cooking tips, we’ll provide some background information first.
National cuisine is as much part of the national heritage as any phenomenon of national culture, such as language or traditions. Many of the Ukrainian cooking traditions go back hundreds of years. The Ukrainians, for example, have always preferred boiled, stewed or baked food to fried food. The Chumaks, or itinerant salt traders, and Ukrainian Cossacks carried small cooking stoves with them (called kobytsya) to cook food while on the march or on the move, kasha (a sort of gruel), kulish (dish made of boiled corn) and halushky (boiled pieces of dough with fried onions) being among the most popular dishes. The meat of the game obtained in hunting was usually boiled rather than fried.
As long ago as five thousand years ago, people of the Trypillya culture that flourished in the territory of Ukraine, grew wheat, barley and millet. Rye came much later, about a thousand years ago. The chronicles provide evidence of cabbage, onions, turnip and garlic being used for food in the early medieval times, as well as beef, veal, pork, mutton and fish. A list of dairy products was quite a long one. Various kinds of beans have been popular in Ukraine since ancient times as well. Buckwheat was imported from somewhere in Asia in the 11th or 12th century, and very soon a wide variety of dishes began to be cooked with barley. The Cossacks borrowed from the Central Asian people cultivation of sweet and watermelons some time in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, and in the seventeenth century, corn, pumpkin and potatoes make their way to Ukraine together with sunflower and mustard. Tomatoes and eggplants were the nineteenth-century additions to the table. The absence of sugar until comparatively recently was compensated for by honey; beer, mead, kvas (fermented soft drink) and later wine were popular drinks.
Soups were probably among the earliest dishes invented. They were cooked with a lot of herbs, vegetables and edible roots, and at one point a soup which had more beets than other ingredients came to be called “borsch” since the name of the beets was “•Y??” (bershtch). There are three basic varieties of the soup which is traditionally called borsch — “red” borsch (with beets), “green” borsch (with sorrel or similar herbs) and “cold” borsch (soup served cold). Most of the borsch varieties are served with sour cream added. Some varieties are cooked with kvas, buttermilk or whey added. In the nineteenth century, with tomatoes becoming a wide-spread garden vegetable, they and their juice were used in making borsch with an increasing frequency. In some regions beans were one of the ingredients; in others flour or buckwheat were added, and in the land of Poltava borsch was served with halushky.
During Lent and other fasting periods, no meat stock or meat were used in cooking borsch, only sunflower oil, with mushrooms, cured or air-dried fish (or fresh fish) added. Borsch was a dish that could be served as an everyday meal, or a dish specially cooked for holidays and other festive occasions.
“Green” borsch is usually cooked in the spring, with young nettles, sorrel, beet leaves, with boiled eggs and sour cream liberally added.
“Cold” borsch is mostly a summer dish, with some vegetables added raw; only the beets are boiled. It is served cold with bread or boiled potatoes.
There are many recipes for cooking borsch. In fact, probably every land of Ukraine has its own way of making borsch. Besides, everyone who cooks borsch may use her or his own cooking ideas. In spite of great varieties of borsch there are some recipes which are more or less universal in Ukraine. We offer three of them.
Kyiv Borsch without meat
Wash dry mushrooms after soaking them in water for some time to make them soft; simmer gently in water with carrots and roots of parsley; add onions lightly fried when the mushrooms are cooked, and simmer for another ten or twelve minutes. Strain the stock and chop the mushrooms and slice the beets into thin strips. Place them into a saucepan and pour some of the boiling mushroom stock over them and boil until ready. Put the diced potatoes and finely shredded cabbage into the rest of the mushroom stock and boil for 10 or 12 minutes. Then add into this boiled beans, cut boiled mushrooms, boiled and grated tomatoes or tomato juice, and the beets with the liquid they were boiling in; simmer for another five minutes; season correctly — add sugar and lemon juice, salt, black pepper and finish boiling until ready. Garnish with chopped parsley and finely chopped garlic and add to each serving 1 tablespoonful of cultured sour cream.
Ingredients: 400 grams of fresh tomatoes; 300 grams of potatoes; 300 grams of cabbage; 60 grams of dried mushrooms; 320 grams of beets; parsley; one big carrot; one onion; a half cup of sour cream; 2 teaspoonfuls of sugar; a half cup of beans; 3 tablespoonfuls of butter; lemon juice; salt and pepper.
Cold borsch with sturgeon
Simmer spinach gently in a small amount of salted water; strain and rub through a sieve; place in a saucepan, add 20 boiled and cleaned crayfish tails, chopped cucumbers with the skin pealed, chopped onions, chopped parsley, and diced boiled sturgeon. Stir well, pour bread kvas over the ingredients and leave the saucepan in a cold place for a couple of hours.
Ingredients: 400 grams of sturgeon; 600 grams of spinach; 20 crayfish tails; 5 cucumbers; 1 onion; 2 tablespoonfuls of chopped parsley and dill; 6 cups of bread kvas.
Cold peasant borsch
Bake beets in an oven or in microwave; remove the skin from the spinach, chop, sprinkle with apple vinegar and leave for two or three hours; boil potatoes in their jackets, then peal and dice them; boil dried fruit (apples, plums and cherries) until cooked in a separate pot; chill the liquid, add it to the saucepan with the beets, add potatoes, diced cucumbers, grated boiled eggs, season correctly with salt and sugar. Garnish with chopped parsley and add to each serving 1 tablespoonful of cultured sour cream.
Ingredients: 400 grams of beets; 400 grams of potatoes; 2 eggs; 200 grams of dried fruit; 200 grams of cucumbers; 1 tablespoonful of sugar; 1/2 cup of sour cream; 2 cups of chopped leeks; 2 teaspoonfuls of chopped dill; 2 tablespoonfuls of apple vinegar.