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Recipe for disaster: BBC adds politics & history to borscht and serves it up to add more bitterness to Russia-Ukraine relations

Recipe for disaster: BBC adds politics & history to borscht and serves it up to add more bitterness to Russia-Ukraine relations
Borscht has been a popular soup across Europe for centuries. Now it’s also a political weapon, and, if nationalism makes sense in the context of what we eat, it’s ironic that a blood coloured soup is making people’s blood boil.

But how can beetroot soup cause so much outrage? Perhaps when history and politics is added to the mix, and often, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Earlier this year, the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted: “A timeless classic, #Borsch is one of Russia’s most famous & beloved #dishes & a symbol of traditional cuisine.”

A recent BBC online article states that the world of Twitter in Ukraine exploded in response to that tweet and responded with anger and humour. “As if stealing Crimea wasn’t enough, you had to go and steal borsch from Ukraine as well.” It seems the Soviet soup has turned sour. 

The BBC’s contentious recipe regarding “the battle of the borscht” seems to be just sticking its fingers in the broth. Bordering countries often have a strong rivalry and tumultuous history and Ukrainians have a right to say borscht belongs to them. But with the blurred lines of Ukraine being in the USSR black and white soon becomes grey (or in this case red). Is borscht really a food Russia developed through occupation? Or maybe the journey of social history and food is something far more complicated. Hmm.

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The BBC article also interviews Olesia Lew, a New York-based chef at Veselka, a Ukrainian diner in New York. She adds “I say borscht is Ukrainian, not just from a nationalistic point of view, but because the soup hails from the land of Ukraine, and those ingredients have been found in the country’s archaeological record into the distant past.”

The BBC continues with a final twist of the knife; “Ukrainian Wikipedia lists borsch as “found in Ukrainian, Belarusian, Polish, Lithuanian, Iranian and Jewish national cuisines,” …. but fails to mention Russian cuisine.

Whoever knew borscht was popular in Tehran? Now you know! But if the BBC wants to politicize this beetroot dilemma and accuse Russia of “cultural appropriation,” they should try telling that to 145 million Russians and see their response! Vodka might be needed.

So, where does borscht actually come from? Who even cares? With food passionately being part of our culture and identity, some fingers point towards Eastern Europe and state that borscht is originally Ukrainian dating back to the 14th century. It also features in numerous cold climate Baltic and northern Slavic cultures including Russia (who also state that Borscht was created there). It’s here, where the cultural conundrum begins.

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The social debate surrounding the origins of borscht dates back centuries (the same niggling debate vodka has, but let’s not go there). The English spelling of Borscht (also known as borsch, borsht, or bortsch) actually comes from Yiddish, and is derived from a Slavic word from the hogweed plant. This was pickled and placed into large pots of boiling water along with vegetables and old bones, and so the famous red soup was born.

The reality is, that as centuries pass, dishes spread far beyond their supposed places of origin and in this case, is integrated into modern day cuisines of Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, and Russia to name but a few. Borscht can even be found in certain Chinese cities, brought by the building of the Manchurian Railway as a branch line of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the late 19th century and early 20th century refugees fleeing the Russian Revolution. 

Is saying that “borscht is Russian” really a message of oppression? Did the sly Soviets steal this celebrated soup to pass off as their own? Whatever the answer and food feuds aside, does this give the BBC the blood curdling ammunition to target Russia? Yes, there are political tensions between Russia and Ukraine, but food should unite people, not pull them apart. Maybe, along with ravioli, dumplings, and dim sum, there are several culinary connections to the same dish as well as countless ways to make it?

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Is this debate and finger pointing another attempt at cultural appropriation by the Kremlin? Geopolitics and information war meets a cooking catastrophe? It’s important to note that Poland and Belarus also claim Borscht to be theirs, so it’s Soviet soup for all. 

Fish and chips believe it or not, isn’t British but a hybrid of traditions. Portuguese Jews famously deep fried fish and, according to one version, brought the cooking style to England in the Middle Ages.

Communities in Northern France enjoyed frying potatoes in fat during the winter months (hence French-fried potatoes). Though Beligians enjoyed them too. Roll along a few centuries and fish and chips became a famous seaside treat in the UK. Just don’t tell the British tourist board!

Borscht is an example of a dish that rises above national boundaries, and so defies narrow definitions of nationalism. Maybe soup shouldn’t really be used a political prawn, sorry, pawn… I’ve food on the brain.

Shall we discuss vodka now?

By Martyn Andrews, RT senior culture editor

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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