I spent this Thanksgiving taking traditional Russian cooking class in Moscow at Goodman (Гудман) Steak House. Despite the fact that I was at steak house, I assure you the food was authentically Russian… or Ukrainian depending on who you talk to. I made three courses, which included borscht, Chicken Kiev, and vatrushka.
In this part of my russian cooking adventure I would like to explain the history of the beet and cabbage soup borscht, and its importance to Russian culture.
In Russian, borscht (Борщ) is pronounced without the ‘t’, that is so often included in the English spelling. Variations include, borsch, borshch, and bortsch.
Borscht is a popular comfort food dish that is eaten all over Russia, Ukraine, and in most of Eastern Europe. Historically, this soup was the national food in Ancient Rome. Cabbages and beets were specifically farmed with the intention of being turned into the soup. There is however a more popular (but not legitimized) tale regarding the history of the modern borscht.
During the 15th century in the year 1637 the Cossacks invented the dish out of necessity, during a two month siege of the Azoz fortress in what is now Southern Russia. Anything and everything edible was thrown together in order to feed the thousands of hungry Cossacks, and they called this mixture borshch. Borshch being an anagram of a popular fish soup known as “scherba”.
The word ‘brshch’ also means beet in Old Slavonic, soooo that could also be where the name comes from considering this is a beet soup.
Borscht is served hot in winter and cold in the summer. Typically, this soup is best when left overnight and served the next day. This allows the potato and onion to fully absorb the red color from the beets, and enhances the flavor of the soup.
The key to making a good borscht is in the beef bullion. For the best beef bullion, one must cook the beef at very low temperature for around 2 hours. If the bullion is at a simmer then the temperature is too high.
There are many variations on the recipe, but generally borscht includes shredded carrot, onion, red bell pepper, cabbage, potato, tomato, and beet, as well as minced garlic and onion to taste. There are several variations of this dish, but traditional Moscow borscht almost always includes sliced red bell peppers. This soup is usually garnished with chopped fennel and cilantro.
The carrot and bell pepper should be cooked together in a frying pan, before being placed in the soup. They should be cooked in a frying pan until wilted, then a whole grated tomato should be added to the mixture. The beets are always added to the soup in the last five minutes of cooking.
Keep in mind the way this dish can be cooked is as varied as its many recipes. It is however, important to chop the carrot, onion, red bell pepper, cabbage, and beet in very fine ribbons. This is what gives borscht its characteristic look. If you are one for saving time, investing in a vegetable shredder would be worth your while. The potato doesn’t need to be shredded, because as it cooks it won’t be able to hold its constitution. The potato should be cut in small rectangular shapes, while taking care to keep them wide enough so that they don’t fall apart.
This dish is not terribly difficult, but takes time to prepare. In total I would say that this is roughly a three hour proccess from start to finish. (If you make the boullion properly.) However, this soup is well worth the time that it takes to prepare. Whether it is served hot or chilled, I recommend adding a healthy helping of sour cream to have this soup like a true Russian.