The maggot-riddled beef used to make borscht for the sailors on the battleship Potemkin was enough to inspire mutiny and revolution. “Dead for a spoonful of soup”, proclaimed the message on the body of the rebels’ leader. No wonder the Russians were keen to appropriate such a powerful dish. But according to William Pokhlebkin, a food historian, Soviet cultural imperialism should be dismissed: borscht belongs to Ukraine.
Borshch, as Ukrainians spell it, may be theirs but beet-stained bowls litter tables the world over. Russian emigrés took it to Paris, where Auguste Escoffier served it at the Ritz, marvelling at the incarnadine broth. The resorts of the Catskills, once popular with Jewish New Yorkers, were known as the Borscht Belt.
The soup must balance sweet, sour and savoury flavours. Start with tart: the sourness should come from kvas, made by slowly fermenting beetroot with rye bread and water. Fermented tomato juice, kept through winter with a film of oil on top, works too. Those with less time and fewer pickling jars can use vinegar.
Making kvas you can skip; making proper stock you cannot. Simmering a cut of beef, with onions, garlic and bay leaves is a good savoury start, though coastal Odessans use fish. While watching the best minds of his generation destroy themselves with drugs, Allen Ginsberg cooked borscht using only vegetables.
The sweet earthiness of beetroot rounds off the flavour. The candy-striped variety will, along with tomatoes, give the broth a delicate rosy hue. Other vegetables, from potatoes to cabbage, that stalwart of the shtetl, should be added according to their cooking time to avoid a mushy swamp. And resist the urge to reach for your blender; it’s a proper broth with stuff in it.
Topped with sour cream, dumplings, dill and salo (cured pork fat) ground with garlic and salt, borscht is serious eating. It can be gussied up; Anatoly Komm, a starry Russian chef, serves it in capsules. But true borscht, the kind sailors revolt over, is a dish of home and hearth and heart.