I have a few colleagues who when pressed to provide a short list of culinary dislikes, blandly cite beetroot as one of their vegetable aversions (located somewhere between broad beans and parsnips on the unrefined straw polls I occasionally undertake down the pub). However, and with no lack of irony, some become more than vociferous when defending a soup we know as borshch. And as those same colleagues never shrink from appearing worldly, their defence of a fashionable dish they can barely pronounce, from a distant land they have never seen, made out of an ingredient they apparently dislike, merely serves to enhance their self proclaimed international reach. And when further asserting that the dish originated in Russia, a country that was yet to make an ominous seizure of Crimea from its Ukrainian motherland, they display a tenuous geopolitical grasp way beyond the Bluffers Guide to continental pick-and-mix.

Not a million miles perhaps, from some folk I know who offer a contemptuous sneer at the ubiquitous grape variety Chardonnay (which they mistakenly assert as having started its commercial life in Australia), yet boast of their fondness for Chablis Premier Cru, the most exalted of all still white wines (100% Chardonnay from France, as it happens).

So, when meandering through Olia Hercules’ absorbing book, MamuskaRecipes from Ukraine and Beyond, a cook book engagingly brimming with context, I found the following introduction to, of all things, Ukranian Beetroot Broth.

“My uncle in Moscow would often be asked by his Russian friends ‘Is it true that Ukranians eat borshch three times a day?’ He answered ‘If you guys could make a proper Ukranian borshch, you would get up at night to eat it’.”

So although borshch is sensibly regarded as Ukranian, and proudly proclaimed by its citizens as their national dish, Russia appear to have imposed ownership of it somewhere along the way. Sound familiar? You would imagine that the former Soviet Union, with such a vast, rich culture of their own, would hardly need to appropriate a neighbour’s bowl of soup too.

Borshch is a traditional and deeply consoling soup, bordering on the unique within the  broth fraternity, yet still expressing nuanced culinary variations as one moves between the eastern European cities of Kyiv, Odessa and Poltava, cities where Ukranian residents stubbornly defend their own singular recipes as the genesis of beetroot heaven. And for those citizens who have made agriculture a way of life rather than an inconvenient offshoot of a global agri-business, regional pride over a bowl of soup is something the rest of us might approach with some esteem (can you imagine Brown Windsor soup ever rising to the status of a national dish?).

A complete and finely balanced meal, big on vegetables and legumes, low on meat, sourced from the nearby land with a survivor’s eye on sustainability and a healthy dish made fit for the demanding micro-climates that feature as summer wanes and autumn approaches. It’s also conveniently inexpensive once beetroot reaches its mid-season. And it’s a notably intelligent dish that should not be seen as an outcome of meagre socio-economic circumstance, but one that might well provide the eastern European equivalent to the much misinterpreted Mediterranean diet.

As Olia Hercules herself wrote in the New Yorker – Ukranian cuisine is “not all about potatoes and dumplings, you know!”

Well it takes little to propel me towards an oven and this recipe for a “proper borshch” with its chimes of tradition, authenticity and frugality, got me there faster than usual. I urge you to regard the dish with purpose…and make it with an inquisitive fondness. A celestial dish and more than appropriate for our late season in Britain . Upon presentation, you will likely be held in unexpectedly high esteem by your western European family and colleagues – although not by visiting KGB apparatchiks, if they happen to feature as your uninvited house guests that evening.

Ukranian Beetroot Broth. Borshch from Mamuska – Recipes from Ukraine and Beyond (2015) by Olia Hercules


200 g beetroot, peeled and cut into matchsticks

200 g potatoes, peeled and chopped

2 tbsp sunflower oil

1 onion, finely chopped

1 carrot, peeled and roughly grated

1 red pepper, cored, de-seeded and chopped

1 tbsp tomato purée

1 beef tomato (skin discarded), roughly grated

½ small white cabbage, shredded

400 g can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed

Sea salt flakes and freshly ground

Black pepper


500 g oxtail or fatty beef short ribs

1 onion, peeled but kept whole

1 bay leaf

2.5 litres cold water

To serve

100 ml soured cream

½ bunch of dill, chopped

Garlic bread

To make the stock, simply place the meat, whole onion, bay leaf and measurement water in a large saucepan. Season the water lightly and cook over a low heat for 1 hour. Skim off the scum with a spoon from time to time.

Add the beetroot and potatoes to the stock, season well with salt and pepper and cook over low heat for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the sunflower oil in a frying pan. Add the onion and carrot and cook over a medium heat, stirring, for about 5–7 minutes until the carrot is meltingly soft and is about to start caramelising. This is a distinctively Ukrainian soffritto technique called smazhennya or zazharka.

Add the red pepper and tomato purée to the onion and carrot and cook it out for 2 minutes, then add the grated fresh tomato or fermented tomatoes, stir and reduce slightly before adding all of this to the broth.

Finally, add the shredded cabbage and beans to the broth and cook for about 7 minutes until cooked through.

Serve with a dollop of soured cream, chopped dill and garlic bread

Wine thoughts

As with all matters terrestrial (oh all right, earthy then), I instinctively reach for the sober, grassy flavours of Cabernet Franc. In Bordeaux it is used as a blending grape in support of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Left to fend for itself in the Loire valley, in particular the pungent and vivid wines of Bourgueil and Chinon, it can represent some of France’s most attractive, accessible and downright exciting red wines.