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There is only one correct Ukrainian borscht; there are countless ways to make it.
It sounds like doublespeak, language belonging in a satire of a former Soviet republic beset by corruption and charged by conflict. Images of protesters on the EuroMaidan in Kyiv eating bowls of borscht (or borshch, as most Ukrainians spell it), however, prompt the question: Can a pot of soup contain, along with the requisite beets, clues about the character of a country — and a crisis?
As Russia makes claims on Ukrainian territory, it might also be said that it has long made claims on its cuisine. But if the current crisis can be traced directly to the events of last November, the exact genesis of borscht is impossible to discern. In “Please to the Table,” their compendious 1990 cookbook, coauthors Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman explained that borscht is eaten and beloved broadly throughout Eastern Europe, but “its strongest associations are with the Ukraine, where it’s thought to have originated back in the 14th century.”
In its many forms, borscht is hearty stuff; this is true of the soup both as a source of sustenance and as a cultural signifier. By email, Natalie Kononenko, a professor of Ukrainian ethnography at the University of Alberta (according to the 2006 census, the Canadian province has more than 300,000 residents of Ukrainian descent), attested to the great cultural weight that borscht bears.
“This is a topic that, in its own way, is about as controversial as the question of whether ‘Kyivan Rus’” — the medieval federation of East Slavic tribes, whose capital was Kyiv — “was the beginning of the Ukrainian state or the Russian state,” she wrote. “Some people claim that borshch is a Ukrainian national dish and others claim that is a Russian national dish.”
When Americans think about borscht, what is likeliest to come to mind is a thick soup with a nearly-neon magenta glow. This kind of borscht is the most sanguine of soups: suggestive, perhaps, of blood, and redolent with the homely earthiness its key ingredient, the red beet, imparts.
The rich, meaty version at Veselka, a popular Ukrainian café in Manhattan’s East Village, is in this mode. Olesia Lew, Veselka’s chef, calls it “classic Ukrainian borscht.” Her kitchen cooks up 40 gallons of it four to six times a week. The recipe has been passed from chef to chef since the restaurant opened in 1954. Lew was born in the United States to parents who emigrated from western Ukraine. She acknowledged that, though there are regional differences, in some essential way borscht is borscht. And borscht, she said, “is synonymous with being Ukrainian. It’s the icon of our culture.”
The differences transcend regionalism; it often comes down to what’s in one’s kitchen cupboard — and who’s eating. “Your everyday borscht might not have beef,” said Lew, who makes vegetarian borscht for her children. “If you invite people over, it had to have beef. It’s a sign of prosperity, and respectfulness. Hospitality is so important to Ukrainians.”
As for borscht ingredients, Lew is fairly open. But she has limits: “Some people — God forbid — put in a leek.”
On the menus of Ukrainian restaurants, one may find more than one type of borscht; maybe a green sorrel-based borscht, a white turnip-based one, and, as with Veselka, another explicitly identified as “Ukrainian borscht.” But even classic Ukrainian borscht is one, and it is many.
“There are literally hundreds of recipes,” explained Halyna Klid, of the University of Alberta’s Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. “In Chernihiv province, a handful of buckwheat is added. In Lviv province, people use hunter's sausage.”
At Café Glechik, in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay neighborhood, owner Vadim Teslar explained that the borscht at his restaurants (there’s another Glechik in Brighton Beach, a community often called Little Odessa) is characteristic of his hometown.
“This borscht is very much an Odessa dish,” Tesler said, through an interpreter. “Odessa is a port city — very open to the world. Odessa food has more oomph, more spice. It’s a conglomerate of Ukrainian and Russian and Jewish food culture. Borscht from another city may be tasty, but the exchange of cultures makes Odessa borscht different.”
The cooks in his restaurants were taught how to make borscht by Tesler’s mother. It includes beets, but it is neither pink nor red; instead, it is an earthy, purple-inflected brown, and, though rich with vegetables, not so thick. It is meatless, yet intensely flavorful, and distinctly herbaceous — and accompanied by a great, garlicky, pillowy roll called a pompushka. Both Veselka’s borscht and Glechik’s borscht are satisfying bowls, but they’re very different. And both are true borschts. Still, there are those who maintain that there is such a thing as right and wrong where the dish is concerned.
Greg Gemerer, a New Yorker born in Kharkiv, a city in eastern Ukraine, emphasized the primacy of tanginess. “All authentic borshch recipes must have pickled beets,” he said. “That’s what gives it the sour touch, and if a borshch is not sour, it is not true Ukrainian borshch.”
There is also such a thing as bad borscht.
Food writer von Bremzen’s borscht memories aren’t uniformly happy. In her evocative recent memoir, "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking," von Bremzen (whose mother, Larisa, was born in Odessa) recalled the borscht of her childhood as “less a soup than a kind of Soviet quotidian destiny: Something to be endured along with Moscow tap water and the endless grayness of socialist winter.” (She came around to better borschts, and an excellent version from her memoir appears below.)
The results of a recent survey conducted by the GfK market research company suggest that the differences between western Ukrainians and eastern Ukrainians may not be as dramatic as they are perceived to be. According to the poll, a majority of residents in both regions support negotiations to resolve the conflict over Crimea, and want closer relations both with Russia and the European Union.
Regional differences among borschts may be more sharply defined, but the feelings the soup summons up in Ukrainians are powerful regardless of which recipe among hundreds one favors. There may be strong opinions about the right way and the wrong way, and aggrieved arguments about the slippery notion of authenticity. None of this undermines the inherent borschtness of borscht. In its pink and purple and sometimes brown glory, its meaty manifestations and vegetarian variants, borscht appears to unite more than it divides.
“I think that the real issue is the emotional value of a food,” Kononenko said, “its value as a symbol of identity.”