What is borscht, exactly? In its most essential form, borscht is a sour vegetable soup that bears some quintessential semblance of Russia and Ukraine. More often than not, it contains a variant of beets or beetroot, which often gives it a striking red or magenta color.
That’s the version of borscht you’re probably imagining in your mind if you’re not from Eastern Europe. In the American imagination, at least, Russian food is synonymous with this colorful beet soup. But this assumption is not without its controversies, and there are so many different ways to make a borscht that you could honestly just say, “It depends on who you ask.”
Borscht can be served hot, and it can be served cold. It can be served with or without meat. It can be spelled “borscht, “borsch” or “borshch.” It might be pink, but it can also be white or green. It can be black if you’re an experimental chef in Moscow named Maxim Volkov who decided to add squid ink to his borscht, dubbing it “petroleum borscht.” And it means something slightly different to Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, Ashkenazi Jews, Georgians, Belarusians and Lithuanians. China has its own take on borscht too, called luó sòng tāng, or “Russian soup.”
To get to the core of what it means for soup to be borscht, we have to go back to its disputed and uncertain origins — as well as dance around the testy question of who, exactly, owns borscht.
A commonly accepted theory is that the word borscht comes from the Slavic “borschevik,” which means “hogweed.” In early Slavic cuisine, hogweed stems, leaves and flowers were often cooked into a soup or fermented, yielding something akin to sauerkraut.
According to Igor Bednyakov, chef at the Moscow restaurant Bochka, Cossacks — an ethnic group originally formed by self-governing paramilitary communities — believe themselves to be the originators of borscht, having first cooked it during the siege of Azov in 1637. If this were true, it would be hard to say whether borscht is truly “Russian” or “Ukrainian,” because the Cossacks never existed entirely on one side of the ever-changing geopolitical borders that defined local nation states.
A commonly accepted theory is that borscht has origins dating even further back to the 14th century, and those origins are localized in the country we today know as Ukraine. Recipe books do seem to affirm that it was the Ukrainians who added beetroot.
You might not immediately imagine that a photogenic red soup would have such loaded political implications, but the debate over borscht and its cultural ownership has been especially fraught in recent years, given the ongoing tensions between Ukraine and Russia. For some Ukrainians, Russians claiming borscht as their own is just another notch in the belt of territorial acquisition and imperial might.
No matter how you narrow down its geopolitical origins, borscht originated the way a lot of peasant food does: out of necessity. It was a functional meal you could make by boiling the stalks and leaves of the plants around you.
But as it spread across the region, it became a cultural staple for several nations, and not only for the lower classes. In the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth of the 17th century, for example, economic decline destabilized norms so much so that even nobles were willing to give borscht a try. And in the process, they added new ingredients according to what they liked and what was growing in the region. Some new recipes called for lemon; others used a mixture of fermented oatmeal, as well as barley or rye flour (called “kissel”) to make a white borscht. You could even use sorrel to make a green variety!
By the end of the 19th century, borscht had spread as far as Persia, France and, by virtue of Ashkenazi Jews immigrating there, the United States.
It was also around this time that borscht became ingrained as a cultural symbol of Soviet Russia. The Guardian’s James Meek interviewed Maria Tkach, an elderly Ukrainian woman living in Berlin, about what borscht meant to those living in Soviet times.