Foreign Affairs

The Borsch War

Both Russia & Ukraine claim Borsch as theirs.

Ukrainian culture minister Alexander Tkachenko 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: #BorshchNash, that is, “borsch is ours.”

The declaration of victory during the Russo–Ukrainian Borsch War was a little premature. Since several years, Ukraine has tried to claim ownership over the soup and accused Russia of trying it to take. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, (UNESCO), declared borsch as a “intangible cultural legacy” of Ukraine, which is in dire need of being preserved due to the Russian invasion. However, UNESCO stated that the cultural value of the Ukrainian dish does not imply exclusive ownership .

As silly as this may seem, Ukrainians do not take lightly the importance of protecting their culinary heritage. Borsch is similar to Arabs accusing Israelis of taking the Middle Eastern delicacy falafel, which most are descendents of Middle Eastern Jews. History doesn’t know who invented borschsch, just as nobody can tell you the originator of falafel.

Borsch, a soup that is mildly sour and often served in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. The most well-known variety is the beet one, also known as “red” (or “Ukrainian). It’s made from animal stock, vegetables, including onions, potatoes and cabbage. You can serve it hot or cold. It was garnished by green onions and sour cream. My grandmother also used a half-hard-boiled egg to cut in half. While the Ukrainians and Russians have fought over ownership, the Jew in me believes that I do have rights.

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It is difficult to trace the origins of folk traditions like songs, recipes, and tales. Polygenesis is a theory that a relatively simple item of folklore can spontaneously have its origins in several places. Folklorists deny this belief. What if people in England came up with the idea of “Ring Around the Rosie?” It’s hard to imagine. Scholars propose instead that every item was created in one location and spread throughout the “tradition region,” which is known as monogenesis or 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. This involves gathering every item that has been recorded and placing them on a map with their year of collection. A visual representation can be used to determine the patterns of diffusion in an area. Although the process is tedious, it may provide some insight into the origins of oral traditions. It has been suggested that older Indo-European folk stories like Cinderella were recorded in Far East and may have originated there. Critics point out that this method only maps the patterns of the recording and not its adoption by various nations or tribes. It is possible that the narrative itself, which dates back to prehistory, is much older than it was originally recorded.

Folklore is first and foremost unoriginal. Wide swathes of land are home to traditions that one feels close and familiar with and which seem essential for their culture. These lands can sometimes be inhabited by neighbours who are, at times, mortal enemies. It feels like sharing a dish with an enemy, or breaking bread together.

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Why has Russia robbed Ukraine of its borsch?

The Eastern Slavic name for borsch, which is derived from the protoslavic term “hogweed” and “parsnip”, from which it was first 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”. The conclusion is that the regional culinary delight was widely available at the time. It is possible that the sour soup predates any historical documentation and may be older than 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. Because we’re referring to the recording pattern, and not necessarily the origin, I used the term “might”.

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If we assume that this dish originated in the present-day Ukraine, it is impossible to know who came up with the idea of adding beets into the soup. You could be a Cossack or Tatar, or even a Frenchman who was on an easterly 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. The origin of the salad doesn’t mean it is less Russian or Ukrainian or Azeri. Cinderella, for example, can be either a French or German story because it is included in the treasure trove of French and German oral tradition. The fact that this narrative is likely to have originated in Far East does not matter. If a version was collected in Saxony it will be included in a book of German folklore.

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A borsch recipe from Ukraine may be included in a Ukrainian book, while the Russian version can be added to the Russian cookbook. This is not because the Russians invented it but because it’s what they use. Even during times of war.

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