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Cook Book Club: April's Ingredient Is Bay Leaf. The Country: Ukraine!

In our second year highlighting entire cultures, we will continue on with Europe as we started last Fall. Kits will include a little bit about the country of focus, a recipe that is native to the country, and a unique ingredient or two from that recipe without which, it wouldn't be the same. Most recipes are from writers native to the country covered or otherwise live there. I'll post the recipes and information here as well, so let's get cooking!


As we continue on our culinary journey through Europe, we make our way to Eastern Europe and Ukraine with a very traditional dish that should be familiar to many, although possibly surprising in its origin for those in America.

A Cultural History of Borscht

Adapted from, and other historical and cooking resources

Ukraine is the largest country in Europe, effectively twice the size of Italy, though even with a wide and varied influence, Ukraine finds itself primarily an agrarian palate with roots in what comes seasonally. As such, many of its dishes spring out of necessity. Borscht is one such dish, with the murky origin that comes of such necessity.

A commonly accepted theory is that the word borscht comes from the Slavic “borschevik,” which means “hogweed.” In early Slavic cuisine, hogweed stems, leaves and flowers were often cooked into a soup or fermented, yielding something akin to sauerkraut.

According to Igor Bednyakov, chef at the Moscow restaurant Bochka, Cossacks — an ethnic group originally formed by self-governing paramilitary communities — believe themselves to be the originators of borscht, having first cooked it during the siege of Azov in 1637. If this were true, it would be hard to say whether borscht is truly “Russian” or “Ukrainian,” because the Cossacks never existed entirely on one side of the ever-changing geopolitical borders that defined local nation states.

Its Ukrainian-ish Origins

A commonly accepted theory is that borscht has origins dating even further back to the 14th century, and those origins are localized in the country we today know as Ukraine. Recipe books do seem to affirm that it was the Ukrainians who added beetroot.

You might not immediately imagine that a photogenic red soup would have such loaded political implications, but the debate over borscht and its cultural ownership has been especially fraught in recent years, given the ongoing tensions between Ukraine and Russia. For some Ukrainians, Russians claiming borscht as their own is just another notch in the belt of territorial acquisition and imperial might.

The History That Followed

No matter how you narrow down its geopolitical origins, borscht originated the way a lot of peasant food does: out of necessity. It was a functional meal you could make by boiling the stalks and leaves of the plants around you.

But as it spread across the region, it became a cultural staple for several nations, and not only for the lower classes. In the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth of the 17th century, for example, economic decline destabilized norms so much so that even nobles were willing to give borscht a try. And in the process, they added new ingredients according to what they liked and what was growing in the region. Some new recipes called for lemon; others used a mixture of fermented oatmeal, as well as barley or rye flour (called “kissel”) to make a white borscht. You could even use sorrel to make a green variety!

By the end of the 19th century, borscht had spread as far as Persia, France and, by virtue of Ashkenazi Jews immigrating there, the United States.

It was also around this time that borscht became ingrained as a cultural symbol of Soviet Russia. The Guardian’s James Meek interviewed Maria Tkach, an elderly Ukrainian woman living in Berlin, about what borscht meant to those living in Soviet times.

“The Jews didn’t think that borshch was the basic component of domestic cooking,” Maria’s son Misha said. “They added something else to the menu. But in the Ukrainian tradition, borshch was the whole meal. Our Ukrainian neighbours in the communal flat would have borshch for breakfast. And three times a day. Borshch is a little fragment of the former life everyone who lived in the Soviet Union carries. Borshch existed separate from your ethnicity.”

What Is Borscht? Let Us Name Its Iterations

Depending on who you ask, it may or may not be borscht if it doesn’t contain beetroot.

The quintessential Ukrainian borscht is made with beetroot, potatoes and pork fat. But if you’re talking to someone from eastern Ukraine, it’s possible they may make it without beetroot, in slightly more Russian fashion. The typical “Moscow borscht” contains various meats and sausages, too.

As mentioned above, Polish adaptations helped borscht branch out into white and green varieties, and the addition of cabbage became a trademark of borscht made in the region between the Donets and Volga rivers.

You can find unripe plums and apricots adding a twinge of tartness to soups in Ukraine and Romania. In Moldova, it’s perhaps a fermented starter made of polenta and bran water infused with sour cherry leaves. Borscht in Georgia and Azerbaijan often has a kick of extra spice in it from fresh red chili, or hot chili flakes.

However much one’s national identity plays into their take on borscht, the soup provides an interpretive medium that is meant to be remixed according to your personal whims. All of the following are nonstandard ingredients that can constitute a borscht: dill, beans, basil, pickled apples, turnips, apricots, plums, cherries, sweet pepper, eggplant, olives, marrow, sausages, mint, tarragon — the list, as they say, goes on.


The Main Event


This recipe has been edited and adapted from Natasha's Kitchen for use by the Brown Deer Library Cookbook Club with additions and explanations from elsewhere

Prep Time: 30mins ● Cook Time: 40mins ● Total Time: 1hr 10mins ● Servings: 10


For Borscht:

  • 3 medium beets, peeled and grated

  • 4 Tbsp olive oil, divided

  • 8 cups chicken broth , + 2 cups water

  • 3 medium Yukon potatoes, peeled and sliced into bite-sized pieces

  • 2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced

For Zazharka (Mirepoix):

  • 2 celery ribs, trimmed and finely chopped

  • 1 small red bell pepper, finely chopped, optional

  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped

  • 4 Tbsp ketchup or 3 Tbsp tomato sauce

Additional Flavorings:

  • 1 can white cannellini beans with their juice

  • 2 bay leaves

  • 2-3 Tbsp white vinegar, or to taste

  • 1 tsp sea salt, or to taste

  • 1/4 tsp black pepper, freshly ground

  • 1 large garlic clove, pressed

  • 3 Tbsp chopped dill


  1. Peel, grate and/or slice all vegetables (keeping sliced potatoes in cold water to prevent browning until ready to use then drain).

  2. Heat a large soup pot (5.5Qt or larger) over medium/high heat and add 2Tbsp olive oil. Add grated beets and sauté 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until beets are softened. 

  3. Add 8 cups broth and 2 cups water. Add sliced potatoes and sliced carrots then cook for 10-15 minutes or until easily pierced with a fork.

  4. While potatoes are cooking, place a large skillet over medium/high heat and add 2Tbsp oil. Add chopped onion, celery and bell pepper. Sauté stirring occasionally until softened and lightly golden (7-8 minutes). Add 4Tbsp Ketchup and stir fry 30 seconds then transfer to the soup pot to continue cooking with the potatoes.

  5. When potatoes and carrots reach desired softness, add 1 can of beans with their juice, 2 bay leaves, 2-3Tbsp white vinegar, 1 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp black pepper, 1 pressed garlic clove, and 3Tbsp chopped dill. Simmer for an additional 2-3 minutes and add more salt and vinegar to taste.

Note on Using Cabbage:

The original author used to add cabbage but their children prefer it without so for years now they’ve been making it just like this without cabbage. If you prefer cabbage, add 1/4 to 1/2 small head of cabbage, thinly shredded, adding it when the potatoes are halfway cooked.

Note on Zazharka:

Grated carrots and chopped onions are always sautéed in sunflower oil or butter until soft and golden, and added to borscht towards the end. In Russian and Ukrainian cooking this method is called “zazharka.“ The mixture of diced vegies and fat itself is called a mirepoix.

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