Borsch is a typical soup of eastern countries and Ukraine strongly claims its origins. This preparation made of meat and beet is in fact object of dispute especially from Ukraine and Russia, so much that Ukraine announced in the last weeks the launching of a process to officially recognize this dish as a national heritage and to enroll it in the lists of UNESCO Cultural Heritage. Beet soup is considered as a dish of the popular cuisine of many Eastern European countries and the claim of paternity claimed by Ukraine has already been the center of many disputes. As it always happens a typical dish is disputed by many areas (all neighboring), probably the tradition refers to all of them, as they are part of the same geographical area.
The whole controversy can be explained by the fact the dish – with this name – appeared even before the borders of many modern nations were manifested in the current form. Borsch or borscht is very ancient: originally it was a different dish from the current beef, pork, or chicken broth soup with beets. For example in the half of the sixteenth century the word borsch was used in a totally different context: the ordinary or Siberian borsch is in fact a small shrub, whose leaves and stems can be salted. In Russia, Lithuania, and Poland, this plant was used to prepare a beverage, kvass, as witnessed by medieval botany books kept in Germany and the Netherlands. This beverage was added to the ancient borsch soup, giving it a sour taste, which later became very typical. According to some historians, this practice was widespread in both Russia and Ukraine, where beet kvass was used.
It is also attested that in the Middle Ages this soup was not red, because at those times beets were yellow or white: the blood color was obtained after a long selection process. Finally, modern borsch has very little in common with the medieval version: in every region where this dish has taken hold, it has evolved in a different way. Let’s see how.
Ukrainian or Russian Borsch
There remains a dispute about the origin of this dish between the two nations. Basically, however, Russian and Ukrainian recipes – with all the numerous local variations – are very similar to each other. Ingredients include beets, meat, tomatoes, onions, parsley, dill, garlic, and the addition of sour cream or Greek yogurt. Since the Soviet era, borsch from Moscow and borsch from coastal areas appeared, with red pepper and smoked meat. Of course in Ukraine as well there are many variants of this dish: there is for example Poltava borsch, with beans. In Russia, besides Moscow borsch, there is Siberian borsch, Rostov borsch, Taganrog borsch, which is usually made without beets but only with tomatoes.
In Poland, borsch is traditionally served on Christmas Eve, and it is also used as a broth for dumplings. In this version is not used meat and it is often enriched by mushrooms. In Polish borsch are put all vegetables, including beets, in a large pot with plenty of water, salt everything and let it boil for at least one hour.
It is not a real and proper soup, but it is a very particular product: a fermented preparation used to aromatize ciorba, a traditional Romanian thick and sour soup made of meat and vegetables. Borsch is added at the end of cooking: in fact, it is this preparation that gives the classic sour taste to this soup. This variant is mainly typical in Moldavia and Muntenia. It is prepared with wheat bran, cornflour and stale bread (or yeast), cherry branches, and lovage (mountain celery). Everything is left to ferment for 5 days; its taste is sour and pungent, with a bitter aftertaste.