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For the love of borscht

There are many versions of this sour soup

Ari Levaux
For the love of borscht
(left) A thin borscht served with a meaty bone and garnished with beets and fennel. photos: Ari Levaux

The long train shuddered through the middle of a cold winter night, somewhere between Mongolia and Siberia. The last car was ostensibly a dining car, but it wasn’t very hospitable. Half-full of boxes, with blaring techno music, only one table was occupied, by some babes playing cards and smoking. It wasn’t the kind of place where I wanted to throw down with the Russian mob. But then, where is? And it definitely wasn’t the kind of place where I wanted to eat a bowl of borscht.

But I did. Or at least, I tried.

My ancestors were Yiddish-speaking Ukrainian peasants, and “borscht” is kinda their word. It refers to a sour soup that needn’t even be made with beets. Once upon a time it was made with pickled hogweed. My mom still makes a cabbage borscht with tomatoes and lemon, but the beet version is more common in the motherland.

A large-boned woman took our order with a demeanor that suggested things would be better if we left. We ordered borscht.

She returned a few minutes later with shallow bowls of purple water, in which a few lonely slices of hot dog floated.

Hot dogs in borscht is an actual thing. They call it Moscow-style, and even a good rendition would be disappointing. But this one tasted like it was phoned in, which was appropriate, given we were hurtling across the Gobi desert seven time zones east of the sketchy warehouse on the outskirts of Moscow where this whole situation clearly belonged.

There are many variations, permutations, methods, materials and regional borscht preferences, and even my own version is different every time.

I serve my borscht in two ways, sometimes at the same sitting depending on the preferences (and finickiness) of my guests.

  •  For a thin, delicate borscht that focuses attention on the beets, serve a bowl of beet-y red broth with some wedges of beet, and perhaps some meat, if using — just beets, meat and broth, garnished with sour cream, a green herb like dill or parsley, and/or shreds of sauerkraut or a slice of sour pickle.
  •  For a thicker version of the same soup, transfer some of each type of vegetable, beets included, from the pot to a blender, along with some of the broth, and puree. If you’re doing a vegetarian borscht, I would definitely recommend the pureed option because it’s more fulfilling and satisfying. Pureed borscht is especially nice chilled. And I highly recommend blending one of the lemon or lime wedges along with the soup for some extra dazzle.
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