18 August 2018

Borscht - every family has a food that warms the heart and soul

My family’s borscht is milchig (no meat), made up of beetroot, pot­ato, cabbage, somewhat bitter sorrel and sour cream; it was the heart and soul of my grandmother’s Russian cuisine. From my friends at school in the 1950s, I knew that the Ukrainian, Lith­uan­ian and Polish Jewish families also loved borscht.

For families with too many children and very little spare income, borscht was an ideal food. Cheap and easy to grow at home, beet­roots and potatoes were collected by the children in autumn and stored in the family cellar for use during the long winter months. There were no fridges of course, but the family cellars were so cold that the vegetables were naturally preserved.

I had assumed that borscht was always vegetarian, hot and tasty in winter, chilled in summer. The women in my family in any case traditionally avoided meat when they could help it; meat was too expensive and who wanted to slaughter helpless animals? Other families preferred meat borscht, made with beef marrow bones and chicken carcasses, but no sour cream on top. The meatless version was far quicker and easier to make, and had a fresh fragrance. But the meat borscht had fat-based bulk and substance.

Vegetarian borscht with a dollop of sour cream

The core recipe is simple. In a large pot, put 3 medium potatoes, a large beetroot, a large chopped onion, a large chopped carrot, 3 cups of finely shredded cabbage, 1 litre tomato juice, water and caraway seeds. After cooking over a low flame for 30 minutes, pour into individual soup bowls and add a dollop of sour cream in each.

In summer, cook the borscht in the same way, but cool over­night in the fridge before serving. Cold bor­scht is a true summer­time soup, and I liked the blogger who compared the thick, hearty product to a Jewish version of chilled tomato and basil soup, or perhaps gazpacho. Vinegar on top allowed the borscht to sit in a keg for quite a length of time. Fermented borscht, which had to be skimmed regul­arly, could be kept for weeks or even months without refrigeration.

One question remains. In my experience potatoes were the food of the masses in Russia and Ukraine, so where did they learn to base soup on a red beetroot base instead? I know that the Ukraine is usually noted as the source of borscht, but if that country’s national soup was originally made from potato or cow parsnips, I am still not certain about the Ukrainian love affair with beetroots. Nonetheless the sweetness from Ukrainian beets was eventually bal­anced with a kvass (sour, slightly alcoholic beer made from bread) vinegar and lemon juice. Borscht was eaten with a garnish of sour cream and fresh greens like parsley. Borscht was commonly prepared in a large pot to feed a family for several days, improving with each extra day.


Even if Jews were happy to adapt local recipes to make the soup kosher, substituting beef for pork or making it totally vegetarian, why did beetroots replace potatoes? It wasn’t until the 19th century that the red borscht we know today became popular, the time when red beets eventually made up much of the local diet. A beet-based version in Poland came to be called barszcz!

Forward agreed that beetroots were often not included. The removal of beet from borscht perhaps explained why white borscht could still be called “borscht”. A Polish adaptation often used a base of fermented rye instead of beet stock. It was traditionally served on Easter with a cubed rye bread and hard-boiled eggs added to the broth.

Gil Marks’ book, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, explored unique cultural cuisines that differentiated between Jewish communities, as well as those that united the Jewish people. Although borscht has long been a favourite of Ashkenazi Jews, beets also appeared else­where in Jewish cooking. Roasting beets was still the best way to bring out their sweetness, delicious in winter. Ashkenazi Jews often ate beet greens in salads, or Russian beet salad with her­ring. Seph­ardi Jews, prominent around the Mediterranean, long used beets in Moroccan spiced salads.

Recipes from My Russian Grandmother's Kitchen
by Elena Makhonko

Perhaps Jews understood earlier than other communities how healthy beetroots are. Despite having more natural sugars than any other veget­able, they are rich in fibre, magnesium and potassium; they help lower blood pressure and they protect against heart disease.

Thank you buba! Thank you mama!

Do other families have an iconic dish?


Andrew said...

I've never had borscht but I must do so. Maybe I will make some as per your recipe but with meat :( No family dish here and the only really decent and at all exotic thing my mother ever cooked was chicken chow mein. Straying from the subject, I am not that fond of goulash, but wow, the goulash soup I had in Budapest was divine.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I remember borscht from my childhood, definitely no meat involved. But my mother’s classic dishes included chulent, the slow-cooked meat, veggies and beans casserole you cook overnight so you can have a hot meal on the Sabbath. My young nephew Max(now twenty)made a wonderful chulent before going vegetarian... Mum remembers going to pick up her mother’s chulent and home-made challah from the local bakery, which had better ovens than private homes. She still makes it once every winter. She used to make calf’s-foot jelly, which, with a little salt and lemon juice was a feast fit for a king or queen. And chicken fat to spread in rye bread - till she learned that it was unhealthy!

If you want to read some fiction with Jewish food in it, I recommend Melbourne writer Anna Ciddor’s children’s book, The Family With Two Front Doors, which is based on her own family in 1920s Poland. Like my mother, her grandmother used to go to the bakery to pick up the chulent and challah and my mum says it took her right back, reading that book.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - I love borscht ... I used to make it a lot when I lived in London and did most of my cooking ... I'm afraid it was probably the cheat's version ... but it was a staple in summertime.

Fascinating history you've given us - just love the learning part ... then Sue's ideas too - the Brits have their foods ... ours probably were Cornish pasties - home made (only home-made) ... but my Ma was a very good cook ... lots of veg and great variety of all things.

Cheers Hilary

Hels said...


sometimes we wish our parents and grandparents were from somewhere else. Hungarian food is almost always spectacular, as you found with the goulash soup you had in Budapest. But foods you did not grow up with may be an acquired taste.

Hels said...


Your mother's chulent, the slow-cooked meat, veggies and beans casserole, had two great advantages. Firstly it was cheap because it was largely potato and beans, with left over bits of meat thrown in for flavour. Secondly it was made on a Friday afternoon and put into a low oven to stew until Saturday lunch, thus no work needed to be done on the Shabbat. I still make it now, but I use a crockpot instead of a slow oven *sigh happily*.

Good on you for remembering calf’s-foot jelly. My father said he married my mother, specifically to get regular access to my grandmother's calf's foot jelly. It must have worked :)

Hels said...


every family and every town developed their very special recipes. Cornish pasties were brilliant, but I wonder if people outside Cornwall can get that brilliant golden flakiness.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, chulent was made, in those days, by people who couldn’t afford much. I am betting your Dad had a great relationship with just mother-in-law! 😏

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, When I was little, I did not like borscht, although it was often served at our house. Perhaps it is time to give it another try-I am a more adventurous eater now! My family had (and has) a lot of good cooks and bakers in it, so there are too many favorite recipes to list at once. One great favorite my great-grandmother Alta made was called "pletzel." I have looked it up, but it usually refers to a kind of onion roll, not the flat cracker that my great-grandmother made that we ate with butter. We tried to watch her make it and get the recipe, but there must have been some special knack, and now the recipe seems lost--what a shame!

Joseph said...

Babovka definitely. A long, flat yeast cake made with either chocolate, or coffee and poppy seed. Every Saturday morning, this was the highlight of the week. Shops may try and make babovka, but my mother was the expert.

Hels said...


When two of my father's brother's died from heart conditions in their early 50s-late 40s, mum put dad on a rigorous no-fat diet. Calf's foot jelly (putcha) was totally eliminated of course. Friends of mine felt sorry for dad and smuggled in putcha which dad had to eat, secretly, in the garage :)

Hels said...


I only know and love one of the types of pletzel you mentioned - flat bread spread with onion bits and poppyseeds. I don't know where your great gran came from, but is essential for every generation to get their ancestors' precious recipes.

Hels said...


Ordinary sponge cake falls apart as soon as you cut it. But babovka has shape and substance, and is a pleasure to linger over.

And another thing. For those who worked hard all week, Saturdays were the one time of the week families could enjoy each other's company. Apart from the great taste, your babovka memories may also be about family togetherness.

Deb said...

My mother made tzimmes for every holiday dinner, and now I make it for my grandchildren. Sweet potatoes, carrots and prunes, basically.

Sue Bursztynski said...

My mother’s tzimmes is only carrots in a sweet sauce. You have to use flour to thicken it or you just get carrots in sugar water.

Hels said...


every family's tzimmes is unique and therefore very special to each generation of that family. Of course your grandchildren love the holidays, and love their grandma's cooking.

Poles were more likely to add orange juice, sugar and cinnamon. Russians were more likely to add onions, salt, pepper and withheld the sweet stuff.

Hels said...


I will add a tsimmes photo to the blog post :)

My questions to you are: a] is an iconic family dish totally sacred and untouchable, or can it be changed over time? And b] would you be dishonouring granny's memory if you reduced the sugar?

Sue Bursztynski said...

Never had a granny, due to the Holocaust. My mother learned to cook after the war. She learned very well. 🙂 The whole point of tsimmes is that it should be sweet, for a sweet year - my family only make it at Rosh Hashanah. Why would I change it if it works?

bazza said...

Gosh, this brought back distant memories of my Grandfather from Kiev. For all of his life he only ever drank Tizer (an Apple & Orange flavoured drink which he had delivered to his farmhouse by the lorry load!) and borscht which, as a child, I intensely disliked.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s ridiculous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


Totally agree. My husband's four grandparents were killed during the Holocaust, so his parents married in 1945 and did the best they could to look after each other. Not only was money very short when they moved to Australia, but they both worked very long hours. Special holiday dishes, remembered from the family, became very very important.

Hels said...


I was thinking that only a dish made at home would count since that is what the children and grandchildren would remember and cherish. But clearly Tizer is your strongest memory of your grandfather. My strongest memory of my grandparents is a samovar for constantly hot tea :)

Jenny Woolf said...

Your post reminded me that I used to make borscht, and no longer do. When autumn sets in, I'll get going! Although finding the sorrel in winter is not that easy.

Hels said...


garden sorrel is used by many families is to make soups more sour. But lots of grandchildren don't like the sour quality and happily drink soups without any sorrel whatsoever. The core recipe in the post shows that my beloved buba didn't even use it.

You said on your blog that "I remembered Grandma telling me how, as a lively teenager, she'd left her boring home and signed up as a nurse in the Great War without telling her parents". She sounded terrific :)