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Soup Called Borshch
Volodymyr Suprunenko, an enthusiast of Ukrainian culture, an inveterate traveler and connoisseur-cum-gourmet of traditional dishes into the bargain, explores not the distant lands but the traditions of probably the most Ukrainian of Ukrainian dishes — borshch.
The more accepted– “received”– spelling of the name for this soup in English is borscht, or borsch, and the pronunciation is something like borsh, or borsht. It sounds close to the way Ukrainians say it — but not quite. The Ukrainian word áîðù is pronounced like bor-shch, the shch sound being rather tricky for the English tongue (incidentally, the “r” in Ukrainian is a hard, rolling sound like in Spanish or Italian, and may be compared to the Scots “r”). Shch is not a diphthong and must be pronounced as one sound. It takes some exercise to do that. Anyway, we shall spell the soup called borsht as borshch so as to suggest both the way it must be pronounced, and the “ethnic” origin and “geographical” source of this dish as well.
Both the word borsht (modified from the unpronounceable borshch) and the soup so called are believed to have come to America with the Jewish immigrants from the Slavic lands. Various sorts of borshch are made mostly in Ukraine, Poland and Russia, but we shall be talking about specifically Ukrainian borshch.
To illustrate which place borshch used to occupy — and many rural areas still occupies, in the life of the Ukrainians, I’ll tell the following story, which is condensed from an untold number of similar stories taken straight from life.
A neatly whitewashed peasant thatched hut; lazy clouds in the blue of the sky; wisps of smoke are rising out of the chimney; the enticing smells of good cooking are coming from the half-opened door into the garden adorned with flowers… A young man, after being away from his native land for a long time, comes home to the warmest of welcomes. One of the first things his grandma asks is, “My dear boy, do they make borshch in those lands that you’ve been to?” The young man shrugs his shoulders and says he is not sure about that but he is sure never to have tried anything like true Ukrainian borshch abroad. His grandma says, “No wonder, they sure can’t cook proper Ukrainian borshch, no matter how much you explain to them how it is made. May God help them in their ignorance.” The young man’s grandfather chips in, “Yeah, how can you expect them foreigners to make good borshch? That’s our dish. May, as they say, you have a lucky day and good borshch to conclude it.”
“All right,” the young man’s mother puts in decisively, “enough of your chattering, my son is hungry! Son, go wash your hands, and by the time you come back, the big plate of borshch will be sitting on the table.”
Ukrainian spirit and borshch
The list of traditional Ukrainian dishes and foods is a pretty long one — palyanytsi, knyshi, yushly, kuleshi, varenyky, halushky, zapekanky, uzvary, kyseli — to name but a few, but borshch seems to be at the top of that list.
I dare say that probably more than any other traditional dish, borshch reflects the Ukrainian national character and to some extent even the Ukrainian national and ethnic history.
For a great many Ukrainians living in Ukraine (ethnic Ukrainians abroad may have acquired different tastes) borshch continues to be not only their staple food but the principle dish on their daily menu. For many Ukrainians, borshch is something that you cannot do without. For them it is as much impossible to imagine life without the sun as life without borshch. The traditional image of the Ukrainian Cossack with a long lock of hair on the otherwise shaved head, long, handlebar moustaches and a tobacco pipe in the mouth becomes complete only when you add a plate of borshch on the table in front of him.
Take borshch away from the Ukrainians who are true to the Ukrainian spirit and character, and you thus take away the most essential element of their lifestyle. Borshch for them is not just a dish they are very fond of, it is something that holds their everyday life together like a vital link — if that link is removed the whole chain falls apart.
For me, as for so many other Ukrainians, borshch is not only the highlight of the central meal of the day, it is the pride of the house in which borshch is served. It reflects the bountiful nature of the Ukrainian countryside, most of its important features — the richness of vegetable gardens, the peaceful beauty of the whitewashed peasant huts under their straw roofs, the home and family values, concord and harmony.
Varieties of borshch are as many as there are specific geographical and cultural areas of Ukraine in the south, north, east and west of the country. There is “a common denominator” of borshch all across Ukraine, no matter where you go, but there are also subtle and in some cases rather substantial differences, which involve the ingredients and the ways of cooking. These differences reflect local traditions and lifestyles. Plus, of course, there may exist individual differences in taste even within one and the same area depending on who cooks borshch.
My grandma, whenever she began the process of cooking borshch, would call out to me, “Do me a favor, my dear little grandson, go to the horod (vegetable garden, as opposed to sad — pronounced sahd — fruit garden) and pick such and such vegetables for me.”
I hail from the southern regions of Ukraine and I think it was there, in the south, that the true Ukrainian borshch had its origins (I’m afraid the northerner, easterner or westerner would, in their turn, claim the origins of borshch for their parts of Ukraine). The smell and the color of borshch is, of course, determined by the ingredients that go into making it, and the warm climate of the southern regions surely is particularly favorable for growing the most fragrant tomatoes, the beets and carrots of the richest state… anyway I think so.
Some variants of borshch include up to twenty ingredients, among them: cabbage, red beets, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet peppers, eggplants, beans, pumpkin, marrow squash, all sorts of green things like parsley or parsnip, and so on, that is all the things that have been grown in Ukrainian vegetable gardens since time immemorial.
The color of the dish that you serve is very important too. The color of borshch is supposed to be a range of various shades of red. I don’t like borshch in which there are too much of beets which makes it bright red — I prefer the color of a more subdued kind which was been enriched by the hot yellow hues of the Ukrainian south.
In the southern land of Odesa and its environs I discovered and tasted dishes of borshch, among the ingredients of which were ducks, chicken and even fish! Odesa is well known for its “multiculturalism”, with various ethnics contributing their features to the local culture, traditions, lifestyle and, of course, cooking, and thus borshch also reflects these influences.
Since Odesa is a major port, it is sort of natural that fish would have found its way, one way or the other, into borshch as well. In fact, it is not only various species of fish proper that are used in cooking local varieties of borshch, but all sorts of edible sea creatures as well. I have even tasted a dish of borshch, in making of which sprats, canned in tomato sauce, were used! It was “different” but quite tasty too!
Borshch in the Land of Poltavshchyna
From the shore of the Black sea we take a leap right into the heart of Ukraine, the land of Poltavshchyna. The inhabitants of this land used to be referred to as “halushechnyky,” that is “those who love to eat halushky” (dumplings, Ukrainian style). But it does not mean that for the Ukrainians of Poltavshchyna borshch is a dish of a second priority. They cook excellent borshch in Poltavshchyna — and have it with their halushky! In some cases, it is just one big halushka that goes into your plate of borshch.
When the process of cooking is nearing its finale, a final touch is required. It is called zapravka or zatovka. Without it, borshch will not achieve that rich flavor which makes it truly borshch. Zapravka (from the Ukrainian verb zapravlyaty, which has several meanings, one of them is “to season” food) also varies from place to place and from cook to cook. A popular zapravka is made of small pieces of hard pig fat, chopped onions and garlic which are fried slightly together and then added to the fiery borshch. Zatovka — it is zapravka which is made not by being fried on the skillet but by being crushed and ground in a mortar. Poltavshchyna and the neighboring lands definitely prefer zatovka for their borshch. In other lands of Ukraine, zapravka is made of fried flour or millet.
I traveled to various places of Poltavshchyna, checking out local borshch, and asking for recipes. In Dykanka I was given a recipe of “white borshch.”
In an amount of water, taken from a deep well, a chicken is boiled with chopped carrots and whole onions; when the chicken is cooked and the soup cools off, chopped hard boiled eggs are mixed into a good measure of thick sour cream, and then are added to what now becomes borshch.
In fact, there is such a thing as “green borshch” too. No beets are used for it either. Its main ingredients may include sorrel, nettles, parsley and other green things, potatoes, carrots.
Chopped hard boiled eggs, green onions and sour cream are added when the green borshch is served.
Borshch in Polissya
Taking another geographical jump, we find ourselves in the Land of Polissya. There, particularly in Zhytomyrshchyna, Rivnenshchyna, Volyn and other wooded lands, mushrooms come to the fore as one of the more important ingredients used to make borshch.
You can boil mushrooms in an amount of water and then use the stock for making which will include the usual beets/carrots/cabbage/potatoes set, and use the boiled mushrooms for some other dish. But in Polissya they prefer to leave mushrooms in their borshch. Mushrooms can be fried separately and then added to the borshch too. If you cook your borshch in wintertime, you can use dried or pickled mushrooms — and of course these days you can use mushrooms that you keep in your freezer after you collected them during your “mushrooms hunts”. Gathering mushrooms rather than buying them at supermarkets continues to be a very popular sport in many parts of Ukraine. There are many species of edible mushrooms, and each of them is entitled to its own name, and it is a great sport to “hunt” for mushrooms in the undergrowth — but you have to be very careful and know perfectly well which mushrooms are good and which can cause a lot of damage to your health, or even kill you.
Flour which is made from dried mushrooms can be added to the borshch you are cooking, to enrich the flavor. Pyrohy z hrybamy (mushroom pies) are an excellent addition to the plate of borshch and they enhance the mushroom borshch flavor greatly.
Moving further west, we discover that borshch in the regions of the Carpathian Mountains is as popular as elsewhere in Ukraine. Mushrooms and beans regularly feature among the ingredients. In some areas, beans come to the fore, and you can speak of “beans borshch”, with beans being the most important ingredient, particularly in the villages higher up in the mountains. They say beans were among the first plants “domesticated” by man. I wonder whether borshch could have been among the first soup made by the earliest Ukrainians.
Borshch in Lviv
The place I wanted to try the local borshch at was a cafe called Kryivka (kryivka was a dugout in the forested mountains in which Ukrainian Insurrection Army fighters used to hide in WWII fighting both the German Nazi invaders and the Soviet “liberators”) of which I had heard a lot and had been advised to pay a visit to. At the entrance, to be admitted, you have to call out the password — “Slava Ukrayini!” (Glory to Ukraine!). The answer is “Heroyam slava!” (Glory to heroes!). You enter and find yourself in a semi-dark hall with roughly hewn wooden tables and chairs. I wanted borshch but I could not help reading some other items on the menu. Among them, for example, was fried home-style sausage Tykha nasoloda partyzanky (Quiet Delight of a Partisan Girl).
My borshch came with pampusky, that is soft small rolls of white bread sprinkled with sunflower oil and crushed garlic! The menu called this borshch The First Communion of a Hero, with the pampushky symbolizing the moment when you leave your girlfriend to become a fighter for the freedom of Ukraine. Very touchy.
The borshch was delicious. And it was not only highly pleasing to the most refined borshch-trained palate — it had a message too.
There are dozens of recipes of borshch — we offer just a couple of them. In spite of great varieties of borshch, the recipes for many of them vary but little — the amount of red beets, carrots, cabbage and potatoes are variables; beets can be boiled beforehand and then graded into the borshch to give an intensive dark-red color; beans are absent in some borshchs; meat or chicken or fish can add their specific flavors – but somehow the essence of borshch remains the same.
Borshch with beans
• 3 liters water
• 1 cup beans
• 300 grams of pork
• 1 red beet
• 5–6 potatoes
• 1 carrot
• 1 onion
• 1 cup tomato juice
• 1 medium-size cabbage
• 2 garlic cloves
• dill or parsley l salt l pepper
• cooking oil for braising
Soak the beans in water; bring to the boil and cook until tender, strain. Boil the meat. Peel and dice the potatoes and the cabbage and add to the meat broth. Wash, peel and grate the red beet and carrot, chop the onion and fry the vegetables in oil in a skillet. Add the tomato juice and braise. When the potatoes are done, put the fried vegetables, and beans in the broth. Bring borsch to the boil, reduce the heat and cook for 10–15 minutes. Add a pinch of salt, according to taste. Season with the mashed garlic, cover the saucepan with a lid and leave the borshch to rest. Serve hot, having sprinkled with finely chopped dill or parsley or both.
Poltava borshch with chicken and halushky
• 3 liters water
• 1/2 chicken
• 1 red beet
• 5–6 potatoes
• 1 carrot
• 1 onion
• 6-7 big tomatoes
• 1 medium-size cabbage
• dill l parsley l salt l pepper
• hard pork fat for braising
Boil a chicken whole or in pieces. Dice the red beet; braise it adding small quantities of chicken broth and vinegar. Dice the carrot, chop the parsley, cut the onion, add tomatoes and braise (use pork hard fat for braising the vegetables in). Put diced potatoes in the chicken broth and boil for about 15 minutes; then put the braised beet, onion and parsley. Chop the cabbage and put in the boiling chicken broth. Boil for 5 or ten minutes.
When served, a piece of chicken is put into the plate, plus halushky (dumplings; see WU #3’07 for recipe of making halushky), chopped dill and/or parsley. Big-sized dumplings can be boiled right in the borshch.
• 4 liters water
• 1 big red beet
• 1 carrot
• 1 onion
• 2 potatoes
• 1/2 big-size cabbage
• several dried mushrooms
• 2 spoons flour
• 1 cup beans
• tomatoes or tomato sauce
• parsley, parsnip or celery l salt l vegetable oil
Slice beet and carrot and fry them lightly on the skillet with a bit of oil added; do the same with diced potatoes, sliced onion and parsley, and put all of it into the water boiling in the saucepan. Boil the beans separately and when ready put into the borsch together with the water in which they have been boiled. Slice the cabbage and put it into the borsch and boil until these ingredients are ready.
Mushrooms are also boiled to readiness separately, diced and added to the borsch.
Fry the flour on the clean skillet without any oil until it becomes golden in color. When it cools off, add some warm water, stir and put into the borsch.
Put the graded tomatoes or a spoonful of tomato sauce; if, to your taste, the borsch needs to be sweetened a little, add a bit of sugar, or if it needs to be sourer, add more tomatoes, or vinegar.
After all the ingredients have been added, bring the borsch for a moment to boiling.
Serve with pampushky.
The borshch which was cooked in the summer of 2009 in the island on the Dnipro River called Khortytsya earned an entry in the Ukrainian Book of Records; 600 liters of that borshch were cooked in two huge cauldrons with 45 kilos of chicken meat, 150 kilos of potatoes, 6 kilos of hard pork fat, 40 kilos of carrots, 50 kilos of cabbage, 60 kilos of red beets, 8 kilos of salt, plus a lot of other things; over two thousand portions of that borshch Cossack were served — and greatly enjoyed!
Borshch cooks in a field kitchen at the shore of the Kakhovsky water reservoir.
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