I arrived in Moscow as an exchange student on a frigid March morning after 24 straight hours of travel. A persistent icy drizzle clenched the grimy city in a gray freeze. Battling a cold, I’d lost my voice on the plane somewhere high above the Atlantic and, meeting my host mother for the first time, I barely managed to croak hello. Masha looked me — her new American — up and down, took my coat, and motioned toward the kitchen. She said something incomprehensible. I squeaked. And then there was borscht.
The soup was pale pink, with a generous dollop of sour cream swirling among chunks of beef and thin strips of beets, carrots, cabbage, and onions. A few dense slices of black caraway rye bread soaked up the creamy broth, their sour tang a fitting foil to the soup’s natural sweetness.
Much of the time Masha and I would spend together over the next four months was in the kitchen after dark, grating beets as big as softballs and carrots as thick as my wrist. She was built like a barrel, with ruddy cheeks and a heavy chestnut braid that reached all the way down her back. She slept late and would stay awake until three in the morning, scripting Russian sitcoms at the kitchen table. The better my Russian got, the funnier she became. That first afternoon, though, she just smiled as I finished my soup and then tried to conceal a yawn. I might be sickly and mute, but I sure could eat.
Masha showed me to the pullout couch in the living room that would be my bed. Her portly dachshund, Jerry, whom she referred to alternatively as Chudovische (Monster) and Zverik (Beastie), snuffled in behind me and curled up in the crook of my knees. In spite of the language barrier, the abominable weather, and my sorry state of health, I felt at home.
I grew up around borscht — not in my own Scandinavian Lutheran family in Minneapolis, but at the homes of my teammates in a local rhythmic-gymnastics club. They were Russian Jewish immigrants from the recently collapsed Soviet Union; their mothers simmered the soup in large kettles on weekends, serving it with potato latkes and cabbage salads at birthday parties and post-competition feasts. It was these childhood meals — simple, filling, and flavorful — that had inspired my curiosity about Russian cooking and, by extension, the culture and history underlying it.
A migrant itself, borscht spread across the Slavic world from its humble roots as a Ukrainian peasant food. Today it appears in endless variations, from a long-simmering stew brimming with beef brisket, pork ribs, and bacon to a barebones Polish bouillon served with mushroom-stuffed dumplings. Its name derives from the old Slavonic word for “beet,” the one ingredient that remains essential across all versions.
After college, I returned to Russia, this time to learn about food traditions in the country’s agricultural heartland. I traveled to the fertile Krasnodar region in the country’s southwestern corner, just across from Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Residents there took particular pride in their borscht, which makes liberal use of animal fats, locally grown vegetables, and sometimes even fruit. Elderly women sit on overturned milk crates on the sidewalks, selling jars of homemade borscht base — stewed tomatoes, bell peppers, and garlic — next to bunches of fresh herbs, smoked fish, and garlands of dried mushrooms. Local restaurants often serve several versions: a rich “southern” recipe accompanied by buttery rolls called pampushki served with garlic sauce; a Ukrainian variant including sauerkraut and prunes; and a summer “green borscht” made with sorrel.
“Every woman has her own borscht recipe, and they will all swear that only theirs is correct,” Vera Ushakova told me as we stood in her cramped kitchen, grinding salt and garlic into chunks of pork fatback in a mortar. Vera was the mother of a friend I’d made at the local university, a wiry guy named Sanya. He had invited me home to make the borscht he’d grown up with.
Whereas Masha’s kitchen had been fairly roomy even by American standards, Vera’s was a tiny box with barely enough space for a sink, stove, small refrigerator, and a table for two pressed up against one wall. She had long ago mastered tricks for making the most of every inch of it, storing pots and pans in the oven and using the sink as a holding bin for vegetables waiting to be grated into the soup.
“With borscht, there are no absolute rules,” Vera assured me. “You can use meat, poultry, or vegetable broth, and whatever vegetables you have. What matters is the order you add them.” Different vegetables cook at different rates, so in order to prevent the potatoes from disintegrating while the other ingredients cook through, for instance, the chef needs to pay close attention to timing.
She began by sautéing diced onions, shredded cabbage, and grated beets and carrots in plenty of butter, then adding them along with potatoes to a simmering pot of homemade chicken stock. When the vegetables had softened, Vera stirred in the seasoned fatback, a jar of stewed green bell peppers and tomatoes, and handfuls of finely chopped cilantro and flat-leaf parsley. A hefty spoonful of sour cream added to each bowl at the table further thickened the dish and added a gentle tang. “If the soup is made right,” Vera told me, “you should be able to stand a spoon in it.”
That’s an exaggeration, but not by much. This borscht was chunkier and richer than any I’d tasted in Moscow. We ate it sitting around a coffee table in front of the sofa, the only place that could accommodate four diners (me, Vera, Sanya, and Sanya’s friend Roma). I savored every spoonful, which Vera proposed we wash down with Champagne. “I’d drink Champagne with every meal if I could afford it,” she said, closing her eyes as she swallowed the first sip.
I now make borscht in my own kitchen throughout the winter, amalgamating lessons from all these women into my own version. I strive to make my own stock, as the Russians do, but in a pinch, I’ll use canned broth. I skip the fatback but keep the herbs, double the garlic, and rotate vegetables freely. Beets, onions, and carrots go in every batch, but cabbage might be replaced by kale or collards, potatoes by rutabagas or parsnips.
I love the deeper flavor that frying the vegetables imparts, though I usually use olive or grapeseed oil instead of butter. I’ve thrown in chopped apples or beans, as they do in some parts of Ukraine, as well as celery and any herbs near wilting. I like to strew chopped scallions and fresh dill on top for extra brightness in both color and flavor.
Like the mothers of my former teammates, I make borscht in bulk — enough to last for a week’s worth of lunches, with more to freeze for later. Like Masha, I often find myself simmering it alone in the kitchen after everyone else has gone to bed. I won’t be eating it until the next day anyway, after the flavors have had a chance to meld.
And like Vera, I find that from time to time, nothing but a glass of bubbly will do to complement it.
Jenny Holm is a writer and culinary explorer based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and online publications including her blog, Eat with Pleasure.
Contributions from farmers, cooks, and others who are tasting the many meanings of food.
Want more? Comb the archives.
The exuberant Israeli chef
Try quinoa, amaranth, millet, and sorghum
Velvety, earthy, and confident
How to live like Julia Child