Ukraine in a dish


Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, most people would have said that borscht, the distinctively coloured beetroot soup, is Polish or Russian. Hardly anyone would have decisively identified borscht as Ukrainian.

In Felicity Cloake’s authoritative Guardian blog from April 2011, ‘How to cook perfect borscht’, she takes a bit of time to even mention Ukraine. When she does it’s to cite Lesley Chamberlain, a former Reuters correspondent in Moscow, who compiled a cookbook with a “modern Polish” recipe for borscht from Lwów or Lviv.

And slightly later, Ms Cloake quotes Lindsay Bareham’s book, ‘A Celebration of Soup’, which “claims that borscht is ‘originally from the Ukraine’.” Ms Cloake indicates that she thinks nothing of this “claim” by citing Lesley Chamberlain again. In her cookbook, she ventures the diplomatic assertion that a “babble” of Eastern European recipes  makes it “difficult to say which dish belongs where”.

The name ‘borscht’ is Russian but in Poland, it’s barszcz and in Lithuania, barščiai.

Just like the hummus hostilities in the Middle East and the Jollof Rice jousts in West Africa, Eastern Europe has its borscht battles. Everyone claims it as their own.

Now, the Financial Times has waded into the argument over borscht’s origins. It recently carried a piece (paywall) by American journalist Wendell Steavenson on the resurrection of Ukrainian food by “Ukraine’s Jamie Oliver”, a chef called Ievgen Klopotenko. Mr Klopotenko’s focus has been borscht.

The piece also quoted Marianna Dushar, a Fulbright scholar studying food history and sociology in the Ukrainian diaspora in the US, and food writer and researcher Aurora Ogorodnyk. Both women are writing a book about borscht. “We cannot make an ironclad argument that Ukraine is the motherland of borscht,” Ms Ogorodnyk is quoted to say, “because it exists all over.” The early “borscht map” created by them, says the piece, “roughly corresponds with the borders of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth of the 16th and 17th centuries, which covered a broad swath of what is now the Baltic states, western Belarus, western Ukraine and eastern Poland.”

But if you get the impression that borscht didn’t originate in Ukraine, you’re wrong. The paper then goes on to put one end of its soup spoon on the scale for Ukraine in the borscht battles.

Follow along.

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