“What’s On Your Table?” is a series of articles exploring the relationship between food and systems of power, and how our dining tables shape global cuisine and family histories. You can find a recipe at the bottom of each piece to join in on the meal. You can read more in the series here.
Earlier this month, Chef Yuri Kovryzhenko was busy preparing borsch in the Ukrainian Embassy in London. This iconic soup is central to Ukrainian identity. It is also the basis of a culinary nationalism campaign which includes sending chefs around the world to promote Ukrainian cuisine. But not only was Chef Yuri preparing borsch, he was preparing a modern borsch, with prunes, quince, duck, and, of course, beets. Ukrainian diplomacy’s new focus on gastrodiplomacy is simple: To win hearts and minds among eaters worldwide.
Sending a chef as a culinary ambassador to promote this national dish is more than just feeding hungry stomachs; it’s about raising awareness of Ukraine’s identity to distinguish it from its Russian nemesis. And the timing could not be better. With Ukraine in the sights of Vladimir Putin’s aggressive attempts to bring this 30-year-old nation back into Russia’s territory, it is hard to overstate the importance of these soft power approaches that are essential instruments in a middle power’s toolkit.
Borsch diplomacy may seem an odd approach to foreign policy when your country sits in the cross-hairs of the Russian army. But the power of food to transcend international turmoil is exactly the formula that Ukraine’s foreign ministry has chosen to win global support for this symbol of Ukrainian nationalism and culture. Through efforts to make this soup a unique intangible cultural heritage of the nation, seeking UNESCO’s imprimatur to validate the claim, borsch could elevate the cuisine and the visibility of this young country around the globe.
BORSHCH OR BORSHCHT
The debate about who owns borsch begins with something as basic as spelling. Typically, in English, I had always spelled borsch with the letter “t” at the end of the word “borscht.” But according to Ukrainian food historian and borsch expert, Marianna Dushar, using the letter “t” is how the Russians spell it. Ukrainians dropped the “t” but there are two ways to write the word in English: “borshch” or “borsch.” But never with a “t.” Ironically the Twitter hashtag is still #Borscht.
But asking the question, “who owns borsch?” is another proxy for the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. There has been lots of research to prove that the soup had its origins in Ukraine. When Michelin issued its 2021 Guide to Moscow restaurants it highlighted “the iconic national dishes of Russian cuisine – borscht and pickle.” The Guide’s press release led Ukraine’s ambassador to France to protest. He would not countenance an affront to his nation’s national dish. After discussions in Paris with Michelin’s management the company apologized for “gastronomic recklessness with an unexpected political connotation.” As the ambassador noted, borsch is ours and invited Michelin to visit Kyiv and taste authentic borsch. Group Michelin enthusiastically accepted the idea. Score one for Ukraine.
Borsch diplomacy may seem an odd approach to foreign policy when your country sits in the cross-hairs of the Russian army. But the power of food to transcend international turmoil is exactly the formula that Ukraine’s foreign ministry has chosen to win global support for this symbol of Ukrainian nationalism and culture.
Ukraine’s history is interwoven with food. It is the breadbasket of Europe. Controlling Ukraine was the prize for the region’s many wars. Stalin appropriated the bounty of Ukraine, starving the local population to ensure that Russia was fed. This period of starvation between 1932-33, called the Holodomor, left over 3 million Ukrainians dead. Less than a decade later, Hitler’s Wehrmacht sought to capture the fertile soils of western Ukraine in 1941 to guarantee there would be sufficient food for its soldiers. To achieve this meant murdering the large Jewish communities that had lived in Ukraine since Hitler and his minions believed Jews did not deserve to eat. Ukrainians also suffered as they discovered they were not immune from starvation when the country endured hunger and death in the winter of 1941 and beyond. The trauma of starvation remains a part of national consciousness in spite of abundant access to food today.
Food also played a role in the Maidan Revolution of 2014. As protestors filled the central square in Kyiv to support the removal of a corrupt government, twenty-two of Kyiv’s top chefs provided meals for the protestors. Soup kitchens formed around the square, providing warm sustenance to those who risked their lives in the name of democracy.
PUBLIC DIPLOMACY AND IDENTITY
Public diplomacy today embraces the power of food to help persuade and support a nation’s political goals. Culinary diplomacy and gastrodiplomacy are important tools of diplomats. Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has recognized this by including them as part of its new five-year strategy. Sending Ukrainian chefs abroad to promote the diversity of its national cuisine is an important part of this effort to support national identity through the kitchen. After all, the kitchen has become a new venue of foreign policy.
Ukrainians are looking for identity. Dushar told me that borsch “is very rooted in our culture – in sacred and family rituals. And almost every housewife has her own recipe. You don’t find recipes of borsch in cookbooks because it is something that families know.” She says bread and borsch are the two staples of Ukrainian cuisines. “Borsch was the food of opportunity. Bread reflects the most fertile lands of Europe for centuries. Aggressors in history tried to confiscate the land for themselves.”
Lviv food historian Professor Ihor Lylo adds that “the Soviet system of public eateries has somewhat damaged borsch’s reputation, when every office canteen, café, and restaurant served a standardized version in regard to taste and presentation. Today in Ukraine you can enjoy a wide range of borsch, practically everyone who knows their way around a kitchen has their own favorite recipe.”
What distinguishes most borsch today is color. Dushar’s research identifies three groups of borsch – red, green, and white. There is red borsch made with beets, green borsch that uses cabbage and greens such as spinach, and white borsch that includes milk or sour cream, wheat kvass, and rye. Borsch is served hot in winter or cold in summer. On Christmas Eve, Ukrainians eat a clear red borsch served with small vegetarian dumplings. (See her recipe at the end of this article.)
It is likely that the saber-rattling will continue in Ukraine this winter. No one can say whether a Russian invasion will happen. Mounting satellite evidence shows a troop buildup on its borders. If history is any guide the Russians like to invade during the winter, based on events in the Crimea in 2014. Yet Ukrainians remain positive that their young democracy can survive, especially as they enter into this holiday season. A Ukrainian friend I talked with last week told me if they make it through February without an attack they are probably going to prevail. In the meantime, the serving of borsch by visiting Ukrainian chefs in embassies in France and England may become the glue of a strong alliance to defeat Russian territorial ambitions.
MARIANNE DUSHAR’S GALICIAN CHRISTMAS BORSCH
This borsch is served on Christmas Eve. It is one of twelve dishes served on that night as part of the Ukrainian tradition of a meatless meal. It is a clear soup, rich in taste, ruby in color, with a sweet and sour balanced taste. It consists of beetroot kvass (a fermented beverage) mixed with a very intense mushroom and vegetable stock. This kind of borsch is usually served with “vushka” (literally “little ears”) – small dumplings stuffed with mushrooms and dried prunes.
Beet kvass should be prepared at least 10 days before cooking borsch.
Beetroot kvass (Beet kvass should be prepared at least 10 days before cooking borsch.)
1.5 kg of beets
1 clove of garlic
1 tablespoon of sugar
1 teaspoon of salt
a piece of stale rye bread
1.5 liters of clean water (6 cups of water)
a glass jar of appropriate size
a piece of clean cloth.
Peel a beet, cut it into strips, and put it in a jar. Crush garlic with a knife, add to the jar. Add sugar, salt, and bread. Fill with room temperature water so that it does not reach the top. Cover with a clean cloth and place in a warm place.
Fermentation will begin on day 2, as evidenced by small bubbles in the liquid. If too much foam or mold forms, they should be removed with a spoon and discarded – this does not affect the quality of future kvass. If the fermentation is too weak – add another spoonful of sugar.
On the 5th day of fermentation, try kvass to taste – it should have a balanced sour taste, with a slight aroma of garlic. Wait until the fermentation stops (it usually takes 7-9 days), strain the prepared kvass into a bottle, cork, and keep in the refrigerator.
Borsch (6-8 persons)
150 g of dried porcini mushrooms (5 ounces)
1 liter of boiling water (1 quart)
thermos for 1 liter (1 quart)
I prepare mushroom broth by infusion method to extract the aroma of mushrooms as much as possible.
Thoroughly rinse dried mushrooms in cold water, put in a thermos, and pour boiling water. Close and infuse for 10-12 hours. Then drain the liquid, separate the mushrooms and broth. (Dushar also said you could soak the dried mushrooms in water overnight and just retain the liquid without keeping the infusion hot in a thermos.)
2 medium yellow onions
1 small leek
2 medium carrots
1 parsley root
1 small celery root
1 medium beet
1 garlic clove
2 ½ liters of water (2.5 quarts of water, or 10 cups)
salt, black pepper, aromatic herbs – thyme, bay leaf (1 teaspoon of salt, or more to taste)
Peel and wash all vegetables. Cut in half and caramelize in a hot pan to brown easily. Put vegetables in a saucepan of appropriate size, fill with water, salt, add black pepper, herbs and simmer for 1-1.5 hours. When ready add 2 bay leaves and leave to infuse for another half hour. Strain and set aside the stock, discard the vegetables.
1 l mushroom stock
1 ½ vegetable stock
1 liquid from the beet kvass
2 smoked pears or 5-6 smoked dried prunes
1 teaspoon of sweet smoked paprika
sugar, salt, pepper to taste
Mix mushroom and vegetable stock in the pot, add smoked pears (or prunes) and bring to a boil on medium heat. Cook for up to 15 min and take out the pears. Add beet kvass, paprika, salt and sugar to taste. You may need more sugar than you expected because you need to balance the sour taste of kvass. Bring all to the boil and immediately turn off the heat. Let the borscht infuse.
Serve in tea cups with a few “vushka”. Garnish with dill or parsley leaves.
300 g flour (10.5 ounces)
salt to taste
mushrooms from a stock
6 dried prunes
2 big onions
sunflower or olive oil for frying
salt and black pepper to taste
Finely chop onion and fry it golden brown in oil, divide into two parts. Finely chop the mushrooms which left after infusing the mushroom stock. Finely chop dried prunes. Mix the mushrooms, prunes and one part of fried onion together, add salt and pepper to taste and fry on medium heat for a few minutes.
Sift the flour and knead the dough with warm water. Knead until it becomes elastic. Roll it out, cut circles 3-4 cm in diameter, put the filling, fold every circle in half, pinch the edges, and then pinch the opposite corners to form the “vushka”.
Spread on a board sprinkled with flour and cover so as not to dry out. Cook in plenty of salted boiling water, uncovered. When the “vushka” pops up, take them to a colander, rinse with cold water, let the water drain. Transfer to a bowl and pour with fried onion to prevent sticking. Cover and keep in a water bath until serving.
Johanna Mendelson Forman is creator of Conflict Cuisine®: War and Peace Around the Dinner Table. She is an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service and a Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. She is an expert in gastrodiplomacy, and food as a tool of peacebuilding. She recently returned from a visit to Ukraine where she taught a course on Culinary Diplomacy at the Diplomatic Academy in Kyiv.