Today I learned how to make borscht. Well, okay, the fact checkers need to stop me right there, because although I went to Lida’s house under the auspices of learning to make borscht, the simple truth is that she let me help her a bit in making it.
Lida is a lovely woman from my church who, the very first Sunday she met me, wanted to know: a) if I knew how to make pie (like, real American pie), and b) when she could teach me how to make borscht. Gulp. I wondered if she knew what kind of a cooking student she was enlisting. But I loved the offer and her desire to interact with me even though the number of words we knew in common probably numbered in the single digits. A bit later she knit me some wool socks and admitted with a laugh that she had measured my shoes left by the door at a church group meeting one night. Who could resist a borscht-making lesson from her?
So. Today after church a small group of us walked the approximately two and a half kilometers to Lida and Vasili’s house and spent the afternoon cooking borscht, talking, and eating. There is a passage in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” that we recently talked about in the book study I am leading, in which a beaver couple takes in the four very hungry children and fixes them a meal of freshly-caught fish and boiled potatoes. The passage is meant to evoke appreciation of simple, good food and delayed gratification as opposed to gorging oneself on Turkish Delight. While borscht is far more complicated to make than that simple meal, there was something similar about the experience this afternoon of all of us (women, that is) preparing the soup while snacking on bread with slices of sausage and cheese, and home-grown, home-pickled vegetables. Here was how it started: First, we needed to peel and cut the vegetables. Great – I can do that! Lida handed me a big knife. Oh. Sometimes I feel like City Mouse visiting Country Mouse. In Aesop’s fable it is Country Mouse who comes out on top, showing that a simple life is preferable to a lavish but danger-ridden urban one. But City Mouse never had to peel and cut veggies with Country Mouse’s big knife instead of using the nice safe peeler he was used to. If that had been added into the story, the moral might have been a little different. Note the skill with which Pavel’s mother (also Lida) is trimming the potato. I watched the two Lidas deftly peel, slice, and slice again in swooping motions, and I smiled a bit awkwardly as I put my potato down into the peelings to cut it. Well, no appendages were harmed or lost, and the vegetables were shuttled into the kitchen to be added to…more vegetables. Lida showed me the pot of chicken stock simmering on the range, with beans floating on top and heavy chunks of pork (with bones and trimmings) down below. There was also a frying pan ready for the beetroot that Pavel’s mother Lida was shredding. They were joking that she was the food processor in the kitchen. And no, my Ukrainian is not quite that advanced (ha!); Lida whose house it is – okay, Lida 1 – Lida 1’s son Sasha was home from university in Kyiv and was translating for his mother in the kitchen. I chopped up some cabbage with the benefit of a cutting board, and then that went into the pot. Sauteed beet, carrot, and onion – into the pot. I kept watching the soup get higher and higher in the pot until finally Lida 1 had to spoon some of the broth into a bowl to keep it from flowing over.
Then it was time to let it simmer longer. If you look up borscht on Wikipedia, it says the cooking time is 3 hours to 6 hours. Whew. Lida 1 had told me that it would take 2 hours, and I think it wasn’t too much longer than that, but then that pot was already going on the stove…
Borscht is serious business here in Ukraine. I should probably call it borshch, since that is a truer transliteration of it, but it is usually changed to borscht in English. But who am I to back down from the red squiggly spell-check line? So then – one source online says that there used to be 40 ingredients in a traditional borshch. And I have heard it said that there should be a certain minimum number of ingredients in a “true borshch,” but I can’t remember how many. Could depend on who you’re talking to, as there are purported to be as many recipes for borshch as there are cooks in Ukraine. Ukrainians will tell you that borshch is absolutely Ukrainian and the Russians have adopted it. Even William Pokhlebkin, a famous Russian food writer, declared that foreigners could be forgiven for their ignorance, but Russians who do not know that borshch is Ukrainian should be ashamed. Just last week when a group asked me the oh-so-common question of what Ukrainian foods I have tried (a far easier question to answer than the even more common “What do you think of Ukraine?”), I verbally scrolled through my list of foods and then said, “So, most of the traditional foods, I think. Am I forgetting any?” and all of the group said practically in unison, “BORSHCH!” Oh, yeah. A colleague very recently asked me what my parents thought of Ukraine, and what traditional foods they had eaten. “And borshch, of course, right?” she said. I told her that my mother had, but not my father since he doesn’t like beets. Well, at least one of my parents truly visited Ukraine.
Borshch is traditionally served with salo, a much-loved dish of pork fat. Cured, raw pork fat. Many people have tried to get me to eat it, and none of them have been successful. It’s dangerous to suggest that there is anything wrong with it, but I have usually gotten off the hook when I explain that I am unusually averse to meat fat, and even take it off of cooked bacon. Then they really have no recourse with me, if I even do that. Here is Lida 1 and me taking turns posing with it:
Time to dish up! Lida had purchased new bowls for this special occasion, and we filled them up with ladles of the hearty soup.
A mixture of parsley and dill was sprinkled on top, and then they were ready to serve. After the blessing, everyone put a dollop of sour cream on the top and dug in.
Clockwise from me: Pavel (the pastor of my church), Pavel’s mother Lida, Lida 1, Lida 1’s husband Vasili, their son Sasha, Pavel’s wife Oksana, and their son Timmy.
I feigned exhaustion from having cooked that huge bowl of borshch for everyone, and they played along nicely and congratulated me on the good job. Really, it was very delicious, and a wonderful experience to treasure from my time here.
And they didn’t make me eat the salo.