Borscht as part of the Ukrainian cultural code

On July 1, UNESCO added Ukrainian borscht to the list of objects of intangible cultural heritage in need of protection. The Ukrainian national dish found itself in the company of Uzbek and Tajik pilaf (introduced in 2016), Armenian lavash (2016), Azerbaijani dolma (2017), Neapolitan pizza (2017), etc. The presence in this list proves that this or that dish is a kind of ethno-cultural phenomenon, a symbol of national culture, worthy of research and protection. From now on, Ukrainian borscht is officially like that. We talk about its uniqueness and variability, its place in Ukrainian culture and the international “gastronomic battle”.

Borscht is a liquid dish made from a variety of vegetables and has many cooking options combined with a sour taste. This is the main first dish of Ukrainian cuisine, which is prepared in all its regions and which has gained international recognition. As, for example, sushi is immediately associated with Japan, and curry with India, so borscht is a symbol of Ukrainian culinary culture.

The history of borscht

The first documented mention of Ukrainian borscht dates back to 1584 in Kyiv. The German trade agent Martin Gruneweg mentioned the dish in his diaries. On October 17, 1584, his merchant convoy reached Kyiv and stopped for the night on the Borshchyvka River – that’s what the merchant called it in his diary. It was the current Borschahivka river, which gave its name to the modern western outskirts of Kyiv. Kyivans explained to the guests the origin of the name of the river by the fact that a borscht bazaar once operated in this area.

However, the merchant doubted the existence of such a bazaar in his diary. He argued for this by the fact that the people of Kyiv did not need to travel so far from the city center for borscht. He could not believe that borscht (or the ingredients for it) was no longer sold anywhere else in Kyiv. In his diary, he explained it as follows: “Rusyns rarely or never buy borscht because everyone prepares it at home, since it is their daily food and drink.”

In 1598, the Orthodox polemicist Ivan Vyshenskyi wrote about peasants who “drink water or borscht” from one bowl. There is a mention that in the early years of the 17th century, a man drank “three bowls of borscht.” And in 1619, there is a memory of a classic dinner set: “And there were pies, and borscht was cooked.” In all three sources, the name of the dish is used in an affectionate form – “borschyk”, which has survived in some regions of Ukraine until now.

Surnames derived from the word “borsch” appeared in the first half of the 17th century: Borshchovskyi, Borshch, Borshchenko. In the dictionary of the Ukrainian language by Borys Grinchenko from 1907, there are more than a dozen words that also arose from the name of the dish: borschychok, borschysko, borschuvati, borschivnytsia, etc. There are many archival references that confirm that borscht has been loved by both ordinary Ukrainians and famous government officials for centuries. So, the history of borscht is continuous and rich.

The uniqueness and features of the dish

Borscht is a universal dish that complements any table well, as it goes well with other dishes. Depending on the method of preparation and serving, it differs in thickness and temperature (more usual hot borscht or beetroot cold dish is a chilled first course); can be lean or meaty; red, white, or green; with or without the addition of local components. Thick rich borscht can be a complete lunch, breakfast, and dinner. In any season, it can be prepared at home, ordered in ordinary canteens or refined restaurants. It is in the top five familiar dishes both in Polissia and Slobozhanshchyna, and in Hutsulshchyna and Tavria. Borscht can change over time, but it remains borscht.

One of the features that distinguishes borscht from other similar dishes is its acidity. One of the traditional options for acidifying borscht is beet kvass. Furthermore, borscht is acidified with cherries, sour apples, currants, cranberries, whey, rhubarb, sorrel, nettle, currant leaves, and viburnum. A more modern option, which began to be used relatively recently, is tomatoes and their derivatives. Tomatoes were brought to Ukraine at the end of the 18th century, and they began to be used in dishes in the 19th century. Other unique products that Ukrainians use in their borschts include: thyme, smoked pears, dumplings, meatballs, boar’s blood, chanterelles, fish (crucian carp, zander, pikeperch), etc. But not all culinary experiments should be considered innovative: for example, borscht with cranberries was prepared in Polissia at least a hundred years ago.

The variety of ingredients and methods of preparing borscht gives an unlimited number of recipes, each of which is unique: be it with pork ribs and smoked pear, or lean Polissia, or even cream borscht.

Due to such variety and variability of the dish, one can confidently say not just “borscht”, but “borscht”. Moreover, this does not question the Ukrainians of the dish, on the contrary, it proves it to us once again.

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