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The Borsch War

Both Russia and Ukraine claim borsch as their own.

Traditional,Ukrainian,Russian,Borscht,.,Bowl,Of,Red,Beet,Root
(Lipatova Maryna/Shutterstock)

Ukrainian Culture Minister Alexander Tkachenko has declared victory. A victory in the “war for borsch,” that is. First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Emine Dzheppar rejoiced, “Borsch is derussified!” Social media chimed in: #БорщНаш, that is, “borsch is ours.”

The declaration of victory in the great Russo-Ukrainian borsch war has been a bit premature. For several years now, Ukraine has been trying to officially establish ownership of the soup, accusing Russia of trying to steal it. Finally, on July 1, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) ruled borsch cooking to be an “intangible cultural heritage” of Ukraine in urgent need of preservation because of the Russian invasion. UNESCO added, however, that the cultural significance of the dish for Ukrainian people “does not imply exclusivity, nor ownership.”

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Silly as it may sound, Ukrainians are not the only nation zealously guarding what they see as their unique culinary heritage. The borsch affair is reminiscent of Arabs accusing Israelis, most of whom are descendants of Middle Eastern Jews, of stealing the regional delicacy falafel. And just like nobody knows who cooked the first falafel, history doesn’t remember the inventor of borsch. 

Borsch is a sour soup commonly served across Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. It is best known for its beet variety, usually called “red” or “Ukrainian.” Commonly made with animal stock and vegetables including onion, cabbage, and potatoes, it can be served hot or cold. My grandmother garnished it with sour cream, green onions, and a hard-boiled egg sliced in half. Although Russians and Ukrainians have battled over the ownership of the dish, as a Jew, I believe I have some rights here myself. 

Tracing origins of a folk tradition like a recipe, a song, or a tale is a difficult proposition. Folklorists reject the theory known as polygenesis, that even a moderately complex item of folklore could spontaneously originate in multiple locales. Did people across what is now England independently come up with the lines of “Ring Around the Rosie”? Hard to imagine. Instead, scholars propose that each item originated in one place and then spread through the “tradition area,” a hypothesis known as monogenesis and diffusion. 

To determine the possible place of origin for customs, folklorists employ the historico-geographic method developed by the Finnish scholar Karla Krohn in the early 20th century. The technique requires gathering all recorded versions of an item and pinning them down on a map along with the year they were collected. Once a visual representation is created, a researcher can observe what appears to be the pattern of diffusion through an area. Using the method is time-consuming, but it can yield some insights for those interested in the origin of oral traditions. For instance, it has been postulated that the older versions of Indo-European folk tales like Cinderella have been recorded in the Far East, and therefore likely originated there. The critics note that this approach amounts to mapping the pattern of the recording of a tradition, not the pattern of its adoption into various tribes and nations. The narrative itself is likely much older than its earliest recorded version, likely dating back to prehistory. 

Folklore is, first and foremost, unoriginal. Traditions that feel dear and familiar and seem absolutely essential to one’s own culture usually exist across wide swaths of land. Sometimes these lands are populated by neighbors who can be, for a time, mortal enemies. To share a recipe with them feels wrong, like breaking bread with the enemy. 

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So, has Russia stolen Ukraine’s borsch? 

The word borsch is believed to be of Eastern Slavic origin, derived from the proto-Slavic word for “hogweed” or “parsnip” from which the dish was originally made. One of the earliest mentions of the dish can be found in the 1584 diary of a German merchant traveling to Kiev, then a town in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Another mention of borsch appeared in the 16th century Muscovite tract on family culture called “Domostroy,” or “House-build”. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that at the time, the culinary treat was already widely distributed through the region. The sour soup obviously predates the historical records documenting its existence, and is possibly older than either Russian or Ukrainian nationhood. 

Because beets weren’t grown in Eastern Europe until the 16th century, “red” borsch is a more recent invention. This variation on the recipe might have originated in what is now Ukraine between the time the root vegetable was introduced and the first mention of the dish in the ethnographic literature of the area in 1781. I use the word “might” because, again, we are talking about the pattern of recording, not necessarily origin.

Assuming that the dish was invented on the territory of contemporary Ukraine, there is no telling who in this ethnically diverse region came up with the idea to add beets to the sour soup. It could have been a Cossack, a Tatar, or a Ruthenian—even a stray Frenchman on an eastern adventure. 

After all, the signature dish of Russian cuisine, the Olivier salad, was invented by the French chef Lucien Olivier in Moscow’s Hermitage Restaurant in the 1860s. This potato-salad dish is served at holiday tables across the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and has been carried by emigres to all corners of the world. Its origin doesn’t make the salad any less Russian, or Ukrainian, or Azeri, for that matter. After all, Cinderella can still be a French or a German tale by virtue of its inclusion in the treasury of the French and German oral traditions. It doesn’t matter that the narrative likely originated in the Far East; if a version of it was collected in Saxony, it will go into a volume of German folklore. 

Similarly, a borsch recipe from Ukraine can be included in a Ukrainian cookbook, and the one from Russia into the Russian one—not because they invented it, but because they cook it. Even in times of war.

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