Recipes, like birds, know no borders, as the British writer James Meek recalled in the pages of The Guardian when he set out, some time ago, to trace to history of borscht. Even less so when the frontiers in question belong to Ukraine, whose name derives from the slavic word kraj, which can mean “country” but also “borderland”. It is an area that has waxed and waned depending on those who have passed through: Varangians, Mongols, Turks, Poles, Germans and Russians.
Frontiers aside, however, it was in Ukraine that borscht first came into being, according to William Pokhlyobkin, a prolific writer and expert on cuisine from the different countries that made up the Soviet Union. And as we know, these included the Ukrainian Republic.
Those looking to offer more specific details, though without particularly solid evidence, trace the origins of borscht back to a Cossack siege of a fortress occupied by the Turks. With several thousand Cossacks to feed, the cooks are said to have thrown into the stewpots all the vegetables they had to hand so as to increase the number of rations.
Five centuries and plenty of culinary evolution separate that battlefield hotpot from a modern-day borscht, although they do still have one thing in common: vagueness in terms of the recipe. There’s meat borscht, of course, but you can also find a fish variation and even a vegetarian option. And if we’re talking about vegetables then there’s only agreement on one ingredient, beetroot. Unanimity ends there. Some people add tomatoes, others opt for beans or cabbage… Recipes vary from one region of Ukraine to another (and that’s without even mentioning its neighbouring countries).
There’s even a version of borscht created by the 19th-century French chef, Luis Eustaquio Audot (cited in The Flavour Thesaurus) which, aside from beetroot, includes beef, pork, cured ham, duck and sausages, and is prepared using a complex array of reduction and cooking methods.
A more conventional, less baroque approach pares down the list of ingredients for a great borscht to beef ribs, beetroot, potatoes, onions, carrots, a few sausages and tomatoes, the mandatory ingredient if you’re to make a truly Ukrainian version. Oh! And a spoonful of sour cream (smetana) on top. The intense red colour of the soup in contrast with the white cream adds even greater appeal to this — possibly Cossack — recipe.
Escribe LUIS PALACIO (EDITOR DE AGENDADECOCINA.ES)