Borshch: Making Something Out of Nothing

Most likely my sudden desire to cook up a pot of borshch last weekend was perfectly understandable. Especially if you stop to consider that the markets these days are simply overflowing with herbs and vegetables, offered for sale to pale Muscovites by gold-toothed people from the Caucasus. Naturally, now is the time to stock up.

Nothing can compare with the aroma of Russian borshch. Its dark burgundy color with a lacy orangish foam at the edge and little slices of cabbage peeking up from its depths -- it is a national talisman. Steaming slightly and spreading a cozy scent of garlic and fried onion throughout the apartment, borshch is capable of eclipsing one's day-to-day cares and resolving all sorts of domestic quarrels.

Traditionally, in the most joyful and the most difficult moments, Russians have sat down at a round dining table placed in the center of the room to a huge, enamel pot full of steaming borshch. And, with a background of women sobbing -- if there is some family misfortune -- or of accordion music -- if a holiday is being celebrated -- they have silently and intently eaten borshch.

There are as many ways of preparing this dish as there are people who have prepared it. Borshch never turns out exactly the same, even if you slavishly follow the recipe that your bosom friend has scratched out on a page torn from a school notebook. No matter how carefully you add the finely chopped vegetables to the boiling stock, it never turns out the same. What comes out is somehow always your own, somehow reflecting your character, your nature. But all the same, it comes out well, and the whole family loves it, just as they love you.

And when Russian children grow up and move away, they always compare every borshch they come across with what their mother used to make. And they keep coming back, traveling to the distant province of their birth "for borshch." That's the way it has always been, and I'd like to think that's the way it will always be.

On the face of it, it would appear that there is nothing simpler in the world than borshch. One onion, one beet, one carrot, a quarter head of cabbage and four potatoes. Boil it all together and add fried tomatoes and spices. Just before serving, sprinkle with emerald strands of parsley and velvety dill. Add sour cream or not, as you like it.

On the basis of this recipe, versions have been created with fish, with mushrooms, etc. There is also traditional Ukrainian borshch, a thick broth made with tomato paste and flavored with garlic. This borshch is only distinguished from shchi by the presence of beets, which make it both red and beautiful.

And what do the authorities have to say about this national dish? The prose of the great writer Nikolai Gogol is, so to speak, thoroughly encrusted with borshch, which is among the details that make his heroes so "Russian" and make his writing so great. And one of the most famous novels of the Russian emigration begins with the narrator preparing a huge pot of sour shchi which, he assures us, "is even better on the next day." This atmosphere is crucial to the novel inasmuch as the action takes place in far-off New York City.

As I already mentioned, add beets to shchi and you get borshch. As the great ethnographer Vladimir Dal wrote: "Borshch is a type of shchi, made of a kasha of beets with either beef or pork fat added." I don't know if I agree about the kasha part, but the Poles take it literally. Once I was looking for some borshch in New York and I went into a Polish restaurant on Second Avenue. The borshch there turned out to be a warm, slightly pink kasha garnished with sliced vegetables. In Moscow, you'd throw a bowl of such "borshch" right in the waiter's face, but they eat it in New York. To be honest, I've never had much luck with borshch in America.

On the other hand, it is not always a simple matter to prepare borshch in Russia either. The stock, of course, must be prepared with beef bullion, but not every Russian is in a position these days to buy meat. A lot of people have been trying to use chicken, but chicken is more suited for shchi. It lacks a certain body and a distinct despairing odor. Some say that it helps to thicken the broth with mushroom bullion, and beautiful and fresh-smelling white mushrooms can indeed be found in Moscow's markets.

But as soon as you look at them, you start to wonder, maybe they were picked near some radioactive Chernobyl ... They say that all those closed military zones, poisonous with radiation, produce a beautiful harvest. And then you start to look suspiciously at the sly old woman peddling her wares.

Soup in general is a natural Russian food. I'm sure that Russia's long winters played their role in this, making the consumption of hot liquids an absolute necessity. They say that they love soup in Vietnam as well, a small, half-starved nation that has of necessity learned out to make a meal out of nothing.

Russians also love soups that are made out of nothing, out of nettles, wild grasses and weeds of all sorts. Some soups are made of sorrel, some are made from beet leaves. Okroshka -- Russia's favorite summertime meal -- is made of vegetables and kvas.

I don't know myself why I launched into this Song of Songs for borshch. Maybe I was just hungry. But, seriously speaking, this dish may soon really become a rarity, a delicacy like lobster soup. Have you ever thought about the fact that crab and lobster soups were the favorite dishes of the old Russian gentry, while average people were thinking of ways to make soups from oats or leaves? Can you taste the "folk" flavor in all this?

I just read a newspaper article that said that average consumption of animal protein in Russia is now just 36 to 38 grams per person per day. For the poorest 10 percent of the population, that figure is just 26 grams. Scientists say that the minimum required for normal health and a typical lifestyle is 30 grams. People are turning to borshch made of plain water instead of borshch made of beef stock. Making a virtue of necessity, some people say that water borshch is easier to digest, while others say it is more humane.

The same article reported that deaths exceed births in Russia by about a million people a year now. Of course, I'm not saying that they are dying from borshch deprivation, but it's troubling all the same. There is a great folk tale about some soldiers who contrive to make soup from an ax. Have you ever tried it? I haven't been able to figure it out yet.

Alexander Shatalov is editor in chief of the publishing house Glagol and is host of the television program "Grafoman." He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.