During my childhood in Ukraine, my family had only one way of making borscht. Place oxtail in a heavy pot with cold water and aromatics. Simmer for hours until the meat is tender and the stock rich and viscous.
Add the skimmed fat to a frying pan to soften the smazhennia, a Ukrainian sofrito of diced onions and finely julienned carrots, until the natural sugars are drawn out. Then comes the acidity: juicy tomatoes in the summer; fizzy, funky fermented tomato purée in the winter; and, always, some julienned beetroot—not too much, and only the light-colored borshevoy buriak, which grow in the sandy soils of southern Ukraine. (“How can one use this ghastly red beetroot—it dies the potatoes red, everything red!” my late grandmother Lusia would say with deadly seriousness.) Boil large chunks of potato and red kidney beans in the broth until soft, but cook shredded cabbage only briskly, to retain a slight crunch.
Season with dense homemade sour cream, salt-cured pork pounded with garlic and salt, or, if you’re old-school, umami-rich powders made from pulverized sun-dried tomatoes and gobies, a bull-faced fish found in the Sea of Azov.
The soup must be thick, so the spoon stands up straight. Garnish with handfuls of dill, fermented in winter. Rye sourdough or garlic pampushky bread, and often whole spring onions and hot red chilies in the summer, are to be bitten into between each spoonful.
It wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I realized that borscht could be made another way. I was just out of graduate school and working as an assistant Russian literary translator. My main work was on classics—Pushkin’s “The Captain’s Daughter,” Platonov’s “The Foundation Pit”—but my mentor also translated smaller articles on the side, and when he didn’t have enough time to take on new assignments he would send them my way.
One day, an unusual one arrived in my in-box: a study, conducted by a Russian academic, on the history of borscht. I don’t remember all the details of the article, and my translation has been lost to time, but one description stayed with me: borscht in the early nineteenth century, made for the Russian tsar, consisted of three stocks blended together—one of veal, another of morel mushrooms, and a third of goose and dried prune, with sour cherries used for acidity instead of tomatoes, which were not yet common in Russian cooking.
This sounded like the most luxurious foundation of a borscht I could imagine—both worlds apart from my family’s version and somehow similar, a balance of meaty and sour and sweet.
In the years since, I’ve become a chef and cookbook author, and in researching varieties of borscht I’ve discovered an astounding range of preparations. The soup is eaten everywhere in Eastern Europe, from the formerly Prussian Kaliningrad, where Russia now meets Poland, all the way through the Caucasus, and extends into Iran and Central Asia, finishing somewhere out by the eastern island of Sakhalin, near Japan, or the Kamchatka Peninsula, near Alaska.
In Poland, for instance, they cook a soup in the Ukrainian style, but also make a thinner Russian one and a gorgeous Christmas version, an elegant and clear bright-red consommé with delicate dumplings called uzska (ears), filled with porcini or wild mushrooms and sauerkraut. For sourness, apples are often added to the stock, just as unripe Mirabelle plums and apricots are used in some parts of Ukraine and Romania. In deep winter in Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltics, zakwas, a fermented liquid made with beets and other aromatics, is the foundation of choice.
In Moldova, where maize is king, a fermented starter is sometimes made with polenta and bran water infused with sour cherry leaves or even young cherry branches, to cut through a fatty pork stock. Georgians and Azerbaijanis, as always, put their own delicious spin on things, adding either fresh, chopped red chili or hot chili flakes and lots of chopped fresh cilantro and dill.
Beef, well-marbled and on the bone, is one of the most cited sources for stock-making, but pork stocks seem to have the most variations, with versions made of anything from simple fresh cuts to smoked ribs, ham hocks, and sausages in Hungary and Poland to crunchy pork ears in Ukraine. Lacking pork or beef, you can always use a wiry rooster; its tough meat might stick between your teeth, but its bones will help to create the most flavorsome of broths. The only thing I haven’t encountered to date is a seafood-based borscht. Maybe one exists in Kamchatka, home to the world’s largest crabs and other oceanic delicacies? If you have a recipe, please, do speak up.
More surprising than the many carnivorous varieties is the overwhelming number of vegetarian recipes, born of scarce times when people had to make do without meat. Root vegetables like celeriac, parsnip, and turnips were often used to give flavor and body, and dry mushrooms were popular in forest-dense areas.
In spring, across Eastern Europe, those heavy tubers would be swapped for young beet tops, sorrel, wild garlic, nettles, soft herbs, spring onions, or garden peas, all of which would contribute to a widespread creation of a completely different, gentler soup called green borscht. It is fresh and zingy, enriched with a garnish of chopped hard-boiled eggs.
Ice-cold bright-red beetroot consommé, originating in Lithuania, but also popular today in Poland, is garnished with chopped radishes and cucumbers to add the crunch and kefir or buttermilk for that desired sour note. For sweetness, among those who managed to escape the U.S.S.R., even ketchup has been adopted with glee.
Variations are dictated by the land, weather, and local traditions, but also by circumstance: people from different cultures intermarry; families are both willingly and forcibly moved. In my sixteen years in the U.K., I have often heard stories that begin with “I’m Czech, but my Crimean Jewish grandmother . . . ”; “Our borscht in Mennonite Manitoba by way of western Ukraine is . . . ”; “My Iranian dad loved this version of my Russian mother’s borscht . . . ”
In recent years, my own father started grating ginger into his borscht, convinced that my five-year-old son, who is half Thai, might prefer it with an Asian twist. It turned out that dad’s gingery addition did not spoil the soup. It just added a subtle hint of warmth, so appealing that I, too, now add some to my pot. I still, however, always seek out the paler “candy” beets, fearful of what babushka Lusia would say if she ever saw that my borscht potatoes were dyed that screaming purple-red.
Babushka Lusia’s Ukrainian Winter Borscht (serves four)
4-5 lbs. oxtail
3 large carrots
1/2 celeriac or 2 stalks of celery
4 allspice berries, roughly crushed
2 bay leaves
2 beetroots, peeled (preferably the pale variety, but the red kind will do)
1/2 small green cabbage, sliced
14-oz. can chopped tomatoes
14-oz. can red kidney beans
4 medium potatoes, peeled
1 clove garlic
1/2 bunch dill, chopped
Sour cream or crème fraîche to serve (optional)
Fill a large pot with cold water. Halve one onion and add it to the pot. Roughly chop two carrots and the celeriac and add them, along with the allspice, peppercorns, and bay leaves. Add the oxtail and a good pinch of salt.
Bring the water to the boil. Skim the froth and discard it. Turn the flame to low and simmer the stock for two to three hours, until the meat separates easily from the bone.
While the stock is simmering, peel and finely dice the other onion. Roughly grate the remaining carrot. Cut the beetroot into matchsticks.
Skim some of the beef fat with a ladle off the top of the stock and pour it into a large frying pan.
Turn the heat to medium and wait for the fat to start sizzling. Add your onion and sauté it gently, stirring from time to time, until it softens and starts to caramelize.
Then add the carrot and cook for about five minutes. Season with salt and taste—it should be well-seasoned.
Add the beetroot to the pan and cook for a few minutes.
Finally, add the tomatoes, cook for a couple of minutes, and taste. If it tastes too sour, add a pinch of sugar.
Drain the beef stock into a large bowl. Reserve the oxtail, but discard the rest. Pour the stock back into the pot with the oxtail.
Add the contents of the frying pan to the stockpot with the potatoes and cook for seven minutes over medium-high heat.
Then add the cabbage and cook for another three minutes. The potatoes should be soft and the cabbage al dente. Finally, grate the garlic straight into the pot and give it a vigorous stir.
Serve the borscht with plenty of chopped dill, some sour cream on the side, and some good-quality bread for dipping. The soup will taste even better the next day.