Ukrainians have a bunch of sayings that basically come down to the message that every pot of borsch is as unique as the woman who made it. When asked about their favorite Ukrainian dish, PCVs and Ukrainians alike will almost always answer “Borsch”. Varenyky come a close second. When asked who makes the best borsch, it’s always “My Babushka”, or “My Mama”. When I meet Ukrainians for the first time, they always ask me if I’ve tried it, eagerly awaiting my response, that yes, I have, and yes, it’s wonderful. Nick and I found a card in Kyiv that pictured a steaming bowl of the good stuff and said something like “Sorry, my darling. I’ve decided to stay for the borsch.”
Why all this fuss over beet soup? I think this soup’s popularity lies in its simplicity; the care which goes into chopping and grating the vegetables, the time taken letting everything simmer. Essentially, it’s home in a bowl. Borsch you eat in restaurants will always be a pale shadow of the soup you grew up on, the one that’s waiting when you go back home.
Last May when I visited my family in England I made borsch for dinner one night. It was much more difficult than I expected, trying to find beets in the Lake District in May. We went to the local farmer’s market, and after scanning the produce and finding only cooked and peeled beets I asked the woman where the raw ones were. She replied that they weren’t in season yet, that these were imported ones from Poland.
I was dumbfounded. And it didn’t explain why would anyone peel and boil beets before selling them. What about the boiled beet water that I need for my soup? What do you mean, beets are out of season? Why haven’t they been stored in the dry cellar from winter? I went around town all day searching for some raw beets, but eventually had to settle on peeled, boiled, packaged, baby ones from Tesco. In retrospect, it was surely a sign that the pot of borsch wasn’t going to live up to its potential.
But back home in my little apartment the borsch is perfect. One beet, one carrot, an onion, a couple of small potatoes, some cabbage and garlic are all the ingredients I need to make a huge pot that will last me more than a week.
I’m talking about borsch for lunch and dinner, and breakfast too if I feel like it. It’s the kind of thing that only gets better the longer it sits in the fridge, flavors melding. Eat it with a slice of black bread, a dollop of smetana, and some dill sprinkled on top, singing this song in between mouthfuls.
Traditionally, borsch begins with the boiling of meat on the bone for an extended period of time, creating the base for the broth. Since I don’t eat meat, I skip that part and use instead the water my hard mid winter beet has been boiled in to soften it a bit.
While the beet is boiling, chop up or grate the veggies. Usually I chop everything up as I like a chunky soup, but I decided to see how grating the carrots and beets would change the flavor. It made for a totally different soup, a lot sweeter from all the sugar more easily extracted from the carrots. Makes for a less picturesque bowl, though. When the beet is soft enough, take it out of the water and let it cool before grating, reserving the water for later. If you’re impatient like me, you can spear your beet with a knife and use it as a convenient beet handle. Has the added bonus of protecting clumsy fingers from being grated, too.
Fry the onions, garlic (not pictured) carrots and beets in some sunflower oil. Season with salt and pepper. I like to add a pinch of red pepper flakes at this point.
Add sliced cabbage to the pot, and let simmer for a few minutes more. I also add tomato paste at this point. I leave it to the last minute because my friend once told me his mom said this way the acidity of the tomatoes isn’t intensified by prolonged boiling. Not sure if this is true, but why not. Add salt and pepper to taste, and let simmer for a few minutes more, until you’re hungry enough. Ladle into a bowl, but a dollop of smetana (sour cream) on top, and a sprinkling of dill if you haven’t forgotten to pick some up like I did here. Enjoy with black bread and pickles from your counterpart.
Makes enough for a week or so. For a heartier soup you can add white beans to the mix.
1 large beet, peeled
10ish cups of water, or ¾ the height of your pot
1 large carrot, grated or cubed
1 large onion, roughly chopped
4-5 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
Salt, pepper, red pepper flakes to taste
2-3 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
1-2 cups cabbage, sliced into medium-thin strips
1 triangle of tomato paste, maybe about ¼ cup
Peel the beet and drop it into the pot of water. Bring to a boil and leave it boiling until the beet softens and the water darkens, about 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile, chop or grate your vegetables. Once the beet is soft, remove it from the pot and grate or chop. Reserve water for later.
Pour a few glugs of oil in a large frying pan, and add grated or chopped carrots, onions, beets and garlic. Generously salt and pepper, add a big pinch of red pepper flakes. Fry until soft and fragrant, about 5-7 minutes.
Add fried vegetables to the beet water, as well as chopped potatoes. Add more water as needed. On a medium flame, let simmer until potatoes are nearly soft, 7-10 minutes. Add cabbage and tomato paste, salt and pepper as needed.
Let the soup simmer for 5-7 minutes more, or until the cabbage is soft.
Ladle into a bowl and serve with sour cream and dill, and black bread on the side.