Why Borsch is a Serious Issue for Ukrainians

By Mélina Froidure

“A soup with political flour”, a dish that “stirred up identity conflicts’’… Content journalists drew their best culinary metaphors when, in the fall of 2020, Ukraine sparked a heated controversy with Moscow over the origins of borsch, a hearty beetroot soup. Ukrainian chef Yevhen Klopotenko, supported by Kiev, said he would try to get UNESCO to add borsch to Ukraine’s list of intangible cultural heritage. That very action was said to have “opened a new front” in the war with the country’s Eastern neighbor, as Russia also claims the dish to be its own. Other voices, however, stated that the media had over-politicized the issue, and that borsch’s provenance did not matter so much, as long as the soup tastes good.

What does the dispute over borsch reveal about the Russo-Ukrainian tensions? What can the soup tell about the two countries’ shared history? And what role can food play in global politics? To address such issues, I spoke to Anastasiia Khardikova, a young Ukrainian woman studying Digital Media and Society at Uppsala University. Anastasiia grew up in Kharkiv, a city of more than a million inhabitants located a few kilometers away from the Russian border. While she defines herself as Ukrainian, half of her family is from Russia and Anastasiia speaks the language fluently.

Borsch is part of Ukrainians’ everyday life. “We usually have it as our main dish for supper”, Anastasiia explains. “You can also have it for lunch. We used to have it often at the school canteen – too often, I hated it! But, growing up, I have understood how beautiful borsch was.” ‘Beautiful’?  I can see how its crimson velvety texture can be aesthetically pleasing for some. But that is not what Anastasiia meant.

“Borsch is not just a soup. It is an act of love”. The dish is one of the hardest of Ukraine’s culinary traditions.  Indeed it takes a very long time to prepare since ingredients have to be cooked separately in order to release their full flavour. “Cooking borsch for someone or with someone is a very meaningful moment”. And in order to get married, one has to master the meal’s secrets. “Well, not anymore, we say it as a joke”, nuances Anastasiia. “But if you are dating a new person, people will still ask you if you have ever cooked borsch for them, to assess how serious the relationship is”. On top of that, “borsch is warm and spicy, sometimes a bit sour”: just like Ukrainian love, Anastasiia believes. Borsch even represents one of the recurring themes in Ukrainian literature. Many stories recall how women, through the soup, tried to make their home a safe space and heart-warming place. 

“Through borsch, you can judge a family”. What each one puts inside the soup reveals their socio-economic status. The dish also shows the family’s habits and lifestyle, with recipes passed on from generation to generation. Moreover, the soup also follows the cooks’ life evolution. “My nana [grandma] used to put a lot of effort in her cooking, letting the meat simmer for hours. Now she just throws canned fish into the stew”.

Food is also a reflection of an epoch. “During hard times, people ate less meat for example. They would also cook roots and herbs they would not usually consume.” Finally, meals also follow a country’s geography, as recipes vary from region to region. “And that is also why I would say that ‘Russian borsch’ is not really stealing from our culture”, concludes Anastasiia. “Because even here, everyone has their own. Food travels through space and time and I do not believe it should really belong to anyone. Having said that, I think we should acknowledge the people who have been cooking it throughout generations.”

According to most historians, the soup finds its origins in 14th century Ukraine. As writing about food was not a common practice during the Middle-Ages, the first borsch recipe was only found on a Ukrainian document dating back to 1785. Decades later, several Soviet cookbooks included tips to make the perfect ‘Ukrainian borsch’. The dish largely spread to central Russia during the 18th century since it became a common staple in the tsarist army. As the Russian Empire expanded, the dish was introduced to the traditional cuisines of people living within or on its borders.

On top of Russia, borsch can furthermore be found on the menu in Poland, Belarus, Lithuania and even parts of Finland. “Even my Czech corridor mate knows about borsch”, exclaims Anastasiia. The dish has been popularized by Soviet canteens, where it was frequently served. “Borsch is a testimony of our common history. The political situation and Russia trying to appropriate Ukrainians’ cultural heritage is one thing, but we have to acknowledge that borsch has become part of their lifestyle as well.”

According to Anastasiia, the initiative to make borsch a UNESCO intangible heritage was mainly aimed at gaining media attention. “The authorities are just using symbols to show how Russia is threatening us and that we urgently need support from the international community”. Russian officials are indeed claiming that borsch saw the light of day in the ‘Ancient Rus’ of the 10th century, where it was made from ‘Russian hogweed’. One should yet bear in mind that the federation of states was centred on Kiev, today’s Ukrainian capital. According to the BBC, borsch is part of an endeavour to conflate Russia’s history with that of the Soviet and broader Slavic world. “Pro-Russian ideologues use the region’s complex past to promote a rewritten history that draws a straight line from the current Russian regime back to the original Slavic civilisation”.

When I asked Anastasiia if she felt that Ukrainian identity was threatened by Russian claims over borsch, she replied by the negative. “Moscow is trying to erase the borders and appropriate our heritage. But for me, it does not really matter. They can say that borsch is Russian. We, the Ukrainian people, know where it is from. And even if the whole world believes borsch is Russian, history and etymology are there to speak the truth.” So can we call it “a Slavic dish” to reconcile all people? “Well, to me borsch belongs to Ukraine”, Anastasiia replies.  “But we can always share a plate with our neighbours…”

By Mélina Froidure

Illustration: Tom Edling

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