I have really been looking forward to writing this post!
It’s one of those fun non controversial ones, real yet so saucy. I mean, food. Lifestyles. The eastern European culture. Family. Right. I’ll begin on a very important point.
Once upon a time I was in my grandma’s kitchen in Ukraine. Nice and warm, it was winter circa Christmas time. The stove was on and bubbling a bunch of things like 90% of the time.
We are hardworking, family oriented people in a cold season. We gotta eat.
There is snow outside, schedule is on point because my uncle and grandfather are working in their carpentry shed, my grandma sits down for a break after lunch. My cousin is at school with my auntie preparing to grab her.
And grandma tells me, ‘you’re not walking out of this kitchen/leaving this house/leaving this country until I’ve seen you’ve made Borsch.’
It is on.
Not unkindly: she just wanted to know that I could cook Ukrainian cuisine.
So, game set and match.
RITE OF PASSAGE
The family is expecting Borsch made by the oldest grandkid – meaning it’s not JUST a meal.
It’s a rite of passage like for any come-of-age Ukrainian girl.
So I can feel the buzz of excitement and anticipation especially from my uncle. That man is typical charming Ukrainian blood. Loves to eat, loves his girls and soft as a puppy. Also my favourite uncle.
Spain, Italy, Brazil and America have their foods.
The closest possible dish to this in my experience is the chorizo Spanish tomato soup and the Italian minestrone.
There’s tea in japan, paella in Spain.
Eastern Europe has its Borsch. And make no mistake, it resembles a type of stew for the west. But in no case is it soup. If it tastes like soup then it is … soup. And someone is trying to be cute labelling the thing…. Borsch.
Trust me, this happens.
Borsch is in itself a big ritual.
There are TONNES of borsch recipes and they’re not specific to people or country… or meat lovers. It can be super simple, it can be super complex. The Borsch I made featured a classic family recipe.
It works, it is pragmatic, time-worn and features one type of meat.
So what is it? It is, by my family’s recipe, as I scribbled super quick in my black Ukrainian survival guide book:
Boil meat with beef, chicken or pork
Shred carrot and beetroot
Chop potato and throw into boiling water.
Fry onion, carrot and beetroot together
Place tomato paste on onion, carrot and beetroot. Use spices, salt and sugar to taste. Stir together in saucepan
Take meat out of broth and chop it roughly same as potatoes
Add the carrot and beetroot mix to broth.
Slice cabbage and put it into potato and beef broth.
Add herbs like parsley and garlic once cabbage is cooked enough.
Take heat off, stir and cover.
Boiling meat for an hour or two, putting tomato puree with vegetables already fried for a few minutes, then putting the whole thing into one pot and chopping cabbage and putting it in last – I’m sorry, that’s not soup. That’s Borsch.
So three components to a good borsch. Boiling, stirring, slicing and mixing altogether. And make no mistake, any Slav or friend of a Slav – usually salivates and begs for a good borsch. The taste is phenomenal and worth the 2-3 hours of kitchen labour.
I told an old colleague way back in my Zurich internship days – that my last meal would be Borsch. THAT in itself brought major debate. One of my old bosses liked my taste and decisiveness. An Irish colleague gasped and told me how her mother in law forces her to have some polish borsch every time she visits.
I do get it. The dish is quite complex and rich; not something English speaking people are used to. That plus our pushy Slavic attitude, can be overbearing for a culture with well-defined and rarely questioned boundaries.
But we adore our families, care a lot and food is a big deal.
I sat down with my family and had perhaps one serving and a half of Borsch … It was barely enough. I was breathless and came to the table low-key starving. I knew sleep would come easily.
To my grandparents, it’s always the first round of the lunch meal. It can be replaced by soup in the context of the meal plan – but it’s always a big deal to have it.
Of course, being my grandma’s favourite I got lots of help in terms of timing, technique and taste. Which I am super grateful for. Being ‘my first Borsch’ was quite nerve wrecking in terms of expectation. No one’s had my cooking before and there was a moderate expectation that I would make something amazing. Maybe that was a form of love. Maybe they knew a first time Borsch could go either way especially considering all the components to get right.
But when I cook with grandma it’s usually loads of fun and everyone notices our close relationship. I am always grateful for her guidance; a very intelligent woman backed by tonnes of school medals and all the career prospects she rejected in engineering and astrophysics.
She was a wonderful tutor and to this day, a curious mind. A sponge. She taught me the secrets of cooking a great Borsch, handed down from her own vast experience.
It was such a big deal that my Facebook got hit with the pride and triumph of the moment – I wrote, January 12, 2014:
“For all you Russian/Slavic enthusiasts –
I just made my first Borsch and have nothing to prove it except for 6 satisfied family members who asked for another round. Phew! “
And it was true. That pot vanished so quickly even I was in awe.
To make a good Borsch first time around is a pretty big thing and earns you the ‘Real Ukrainian Housewife’ Medal which is actually an honour. It means you are blessed with good food, household skills and status of healthy and happy family. Because not everyone can cook a good one. And every Borsch is unique to its Chef.
For me, it genuinely made me feel capable and to be honest, kinda addicted to making more. You can’t have enough Borsch. Any Slav knows this.
It wasn’t anything like putting on a pair of heels or a sexy dress, makeup or hair – it was like getting an awed, satisfied look from a bunch of guys while doing something badass.
I had made Borsch.
I got respect… and some orders.
‘What’s in it? It’s so good!’ my uncle said.
‘Love,’ I said in good natured Ukrainian banter. First time around he smiled, then –
‘Could you make another?’ He asked with an adoring smile.
‘Maybe tomorrow,’ I said, feeling totally wiped out. And just a bit overwhelmed.
The family looked on in awe, sitting and digesting while grandma and myself cleaned the kitchen and table. Their oldest grandkid who was raised across the pond could cook and deliver… she’s one of us now. Ukrainian checklist gets a giant tick.
Back in the day before the industrial revolution, Stalin and USSR and the Gholodomor (mass starvation) we had villages and loads of fields – food and trades. At the start of the working day you would go boil a pot of water, chuck in chopped vegetables and let that simmer half a day until breaking for lunch – and have your Borsch.
Juicy, complex, savoury with vegetables and meat. Juicy intense flavour with right one. Vegetarian or with chicken, beef. And if it’s a lucky day in the village, a rooster could be in there – the pinnacle of tasty Borsch.
Yummy plants, big bowls for families. This is how our nation thrived. That was our heritage. Something the old Kozaks looked forward to in coming home from trades and wars.
We women held down the fort and boy we could cook. And honey, we got plenty of poems, jokes and songs on all the above.
Fast forward December 2018, I’m starting to crave Borsch. I really want to make one BUT I’m facing many challenges.
a. making one pot is out of the question. Borsch is made to feed at least 2 people at least 2 serves each.
b. It’s most fresh to eat in 1 or 2 days; at its most delicious
c. I need to allocate half a day to make this dish properly… not to mention the labour.
d. for all the above, I would need to invite friends over to eat with me.
In regards to d, I’m not in a city hub and I know for a fact booking a group of friends for the same time is awkward, painful, slow work. In bro language: High risk and low reward.
It goes without mention that as a respectable Ukrainian girl that wants to make a damn good Borsch, I want the best ingredients. This is all time and energy before we begin to think strategically about making Borsch in the actual kitchen.
g. booking a group of friends that are overworked with fast paced careers sounds like Mission Impossible.
This my friends, calls for time out, help from my brothers and sisters and of course, an actual sit down with attention away from phones.
And it knocks me again: this is why fast food wins. Fast life, fast business, workloads; we have time for a brief dinner, shower and switch off before going to snooze land. Then the weekend will go FAST.
I wanna eat and reconnect with my culture and share that Borsch with my friends but the modern world won’t let me!
What did I do after realizing it would be a gigantic struggle street to make my awesome Borsch?
I bought 5 litres of tomato juice. And vented on the phone to mum who totally understood.
The conveyor belt of productivity doesn’t want you to think about your heritage, taste buds or the power of prayer unless it wins some profit. And so I find myself writing this.