In fact, the most common spelling in English, “borscht,” is the Yiddish word for the pronounced dish without the “t” in Ukrainian and Russian. The usage of “shch” is a stand-in for a single letter “щ” in both languages.
For Olia Hercules, a Ukrainian-born cookbook author who has become an antiwar activist following Russia’s invasion, borshch is inextricably woven into taste memory and family lore.
“I have a video of my [then] 2-year old son, plucking out a piece from a bowl of borshch,” Hercules recalls when I chatted with her via Zoom from her London home, “and exclaiming, ‘Look mom, a noodle,’ and I’d say to him , ‘No, Sasha, that’s a piece of cabbage.’” She pauses and adds, “Borshch is the first thing my mom cooked.”
Her grandmother, who raised six children and was a uniting force in the family, once got so sick she was bedridden. Because dinner still needed to be made, she talked Hercules’s then 7-year-old mother through the steps. “Can you imagine making borshch as a 7-year-old?”
The word borshch itself originated from the Old Slavonic word “b’rshch” (beet).
While researching borshch for her 2020 cookbook “Summer Kitchens,” Hercules encountered its many varieties, including one using light pink beets for a delicate hue; another one that incorporates baby eels; as well as a version from her birthplace of Kakhovka, Ukraine, where locals use sun-dried salted fish for saltiness and umami.
While the deep-red, beet-based variety is most well known, there are dozens of variations, depending on geography and what grows well locally. Borsch can be white, green or pink; hot or cold; include meat or fish, or be vegetarian or even vegan. It’s commonly topped with chopped herbs such as dill, parsley, scallions or all three; often garnished with fried cubes of salo (cured pork belly) and minced garlic; and accompanied by hearty bread, uszka (little dumplings shaped like ears) or pampushky (yeast-raised bread buns).
In the summer, the cold versions abound, brimming with fresh, crunchy vegetables such as chopped cucumber and radishes, and made more filling by halved hard-boiled eggs, placed on top so they look like eyes peering at you. And less I forget, there’s always a bottomless bowl of smetana (sour cream) to top your bowl.
Borshch is a forgiving and not especially prescriptive dish. It’s impossible to pinpoint one authentic version, as there are likely as many recipes as families who prepare it. But several ingredients and concepts are helpful to keep in mind when making it:
One: Use sunflower oil, preferably unrefined: Much of Ukrainian (and Russian) cuisine is made using it. Sunflower, the official flower of Ukraine, grows well in that part of Europe, and unrefined sunflower oil will infuse your food with its unique flavor.
Two: The Ukrainian soffrito, zacharka or smazhennya, is critical for an added layer of flavor. It means using an additional cooking vessel, but it’s worth the trouble.
Three: Tomatoes are important for both color and acidity, but often, once the borshch is cooked, fresh lemon juice, and sometimes sugar, is added until a balance of sour, savory and sweet is achieved.
And finally: When garnishing your borshch with dill, a liberal — read: generous — shower of the herb is encouraged. There’s no such thing as too much of it.
In the dead of winter, when temperatures in my then-native Leningrad were consistently below freezing and icy winds and piles of snow were our constant outside companions, a bowl of piping hot borshch was always the thing to bring me back from my semi-frozen state. I’d come home from school in the afternoon (before setting off for hours of classes at music school) and my grandmother would serve me a bowl of the steaming hot soup, with a thick slice of rye bread on the side. The bright red color was soon muted by a generous dollop of smetana, which would melt in the hot soup, sending its white streaks all around, like a possessed octopus.
While a borshch could most certainly be a part of a multicourse meal, it should be hearty enough to be a meal in and of itself. A proper borshch must be thick enough for a spoon to stand up in it, a saying goes.
It’s not practical to make a small batch. A proper borshch, one with layers of flavors and depth, takes time to prepare, especially if you make your own stock. The soup tastes infinitely better once it stays overnight in the fridge. Leftovers also freeze beautifully.
Such recipes encourage and even inspire sharing, and that aspect of cooking is powerful, Hercules says.
Food is about connecting. With family and friends. With history and heritage. “Our family could come together and cook, eat, drink, share stories, cry, laugh and repeat,” Hercules says. When she was younger, the stories felt too distant to understand — almost mythical — but as she grew up, she started to pay attention. This was family lore, told around courses of a long meal.
When asked why people tend to turn to food in times like these, Hercules pauses. “Food is life. Food is also family. And so, family is life. A lot of us in Ukraine, the time we spend as a family, we are often cooking together. And sharing stories.”
Cooking together, whether in person or virtually, is about unity and connection, she says. It not only nourishes the body, but also makes us more compassionate. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Hercules went into shock and became emotionally paralyzed for two days, not eating or sleeping. As the second day was drawing to a close, she left the house for the first time to go out to dinner. At one point during the meal she went to the bathroom and was there when her brother called. Instead of evacuating with his family, Oleksandr, a pacifist who has never fired a gun, sent his family away and volunteered for the Territorial Defense Forces. “They gave me a rifle,” he told Hercules, “and that’s it.”
In that moment, Hercules says, her paralysis gave way to a desire to do something. She went home and recorded a video on Instagram asking for donations to her PayPal account to raise money for her brother’s troop. At the time, she says, they were running around snow-covered Kyiv in sneakers. They didn’t have helmets, bulletproof vests or boots. Hercules decided to change that, and has since raised enough funds to help Oleksandr procure the necessary equipment for his mates.
She begged her parents to come to London to stay with her, but they refused. Kakhovka is their home, they said, so why should they be the ones to leave?
So she works to keep attention on the war and do what she can to support her family and homeland.
Hercules also has teamed up with Alissa Timoshkina, a London-based, Russian-born chef and cookbook author, to raise awareness by encouraging people to cook Ukrainian food and using hashtag #cookforukraine. “It puts a human face with the idea of war. It humanizes us. It’s not just stories of war, it’s real people fighting and dying,” she says.
Hercules also has plans for after the war. “I’m not going to stop until Ukraine is free. I plan to keep going until we rebuild it.” Her dream is to build free cooking schools for teens. “They can learn to make sourdough or become a chef, but it’s also therapy, too.”
As I make a pot of borshch so big it’s almost filled to the brim, I think of my father’s father, who died well before I was born and was from the Poltava in central Ukraine, and feel that connection Hercules describes. I serve it to my family, and hug my 7-year-old with an achy heart, grateful we are safe and simultaneously heavy with the knowledge that so many others are not.