Borscht: The Favorite Jewish Soup
A brief history of Jewish borscht, plus three recipes.
Borscht, a thick soup made with beets, is in the news. Is it a Ukrainian dish – or a Russian one? (Or both?)
Ukraine and Russia have been embroiled in bitter fighting ever since 2014, when Russia annexed part of the Crimean region, and now the two countries are battling each other on the international gastronomic stage as well. Ukraine has asked UNESCO, the United Nations cultural heritage agency, to recognize borscht as an aspect of Ukrainian national culture. Russia has responded bitterly, contending that borscht is a Russian national delicacy, not Ukrainian.
The push to designate borscht as Ukrainian comes from Ievgen Klopotenko, a 33-year-old Ukrainian chef who’s been compiling evidence that local families have passed beloved borscht recipes down through the generations.
Borscht is also popular in in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and beyond, areas that were long home to Jews. Through the years Jews have created their own delicious versions of borscht. Here are four little-known facts about Jews and borscht, plus three recipes for different versions to try.
Borscht has a long history. In the Middle Ages, peasants in Eastern Europe began adding some much-needed variety and nutrition to their diets by preparing a thick vegetable soup made out of cow parsnips, a white root vegetable related to carrots that is called borsh in Old Slavonic. It was common in much of the area that today encompasses Lithuania, Russia and Ukraine for families to keep a pot of borsh soup or stew all week long, serving it alongside bread at meals, and replenishing what was taken out of the pot by adding whatever other vegetables or meat or bones, if they could afford it.
Common additions included beans, cabbage, mushrooms and onions. Borsh roots have a very sharp taste, and the flavor of borsh stew was sour. To temper the flavor, it became common to add an Eastern European type of sour cream called smetana to the soup, with each diner adding a dollop to their own bowl at the table.
Beets are native to the Mediterranean. In the 16th century, German and Italian farmers began growing beets, and soon this new crop began to spread throughout Eastern Europe where beets could withstand the harsh climate. Unlike borsh, beets have a sweet taste, and soon they became wildly popular, including in the family stews that were common in the area. It became popular to add beet-based vinegar to the soup to recapture some of the sharp taste people were used to. Even after beets overtook borsh roots as the vegetable of choice in soups, peasants kept the old name, continuing to call the rich vegetable soups they relied on “borsh”.
The first Yiddish records of Jews cooking borsh soup date from the 1500s. Jews made borsh soup much like their non-Jewish neighbors, with local and family variations determining the exact recipe. Jewish cooks, however, made some key changes: since kosher laws forbid the mixing of milk and meat products, Jewish cooks began to develop two very distinct styles. Hearty meat-based incorporated rich chicken or beef broth, and were eaten without the common sour cream topping. (Jewish versions were distinct also in that they obviously didn’t use pork, which was common, particularly in Ukraine.) Jews also made lighter vegetarian versions that could be eaten with sour cream. These thinner red soups cooked with beets turned a beautiful pink color when sour cream was stirred in.
Soon, this light, water-based beet version became identified with Jewish cuisine. Yiddish speaking Jews also gave a slightly new name to these soups, pronouncing them borscht (with a t at the end). While many Eastern European non-Jewish cooks associated borscht with a heavy, pork-based soup, in Jewish kitchens it began to be seen as a lighter, vegetarian dish. Jewish cooks began adding sugar, particularly in the Galician region of central Europe, to beet borscht giving Jewish borscht a tangy, sweet and sour taste. (Some cooks added lemon juice or vinegar for tartness; others added a thick fermented beet concentrate, called rosl in Yiddish.)
Jewish Holiday Food
Borscht is a versatile soup. Versions that were popular with European Jews included cabbage-based borscht and beet-bashed borscht and milchig (dairy) and fleishig (meat) versions. Borscht can also be eaten hot or cold. It’s become a beloved holiday meal in many Eastern European Jewish homes, eaten on Passover, Shavuot and Shabbat.
For many Jews, Passover wouldn’t feel complete without beet borscht. Food historian Gil Marks speculates that one reason beet borscht became so associated with Passover lay in the impoverished circumstances of many Eastern European Jews. With fresh vegetables in short supply, many Jewish families would store root vegetables such as potatoes, onions and beets in cellars to use all winter long. By the end of the winter, beets were often among the only foods Jewish families had left. Passover, often coming early in the Spring, posed a challenge in finding food fit for the holiday’s festive meals. Beet borscht – often with a boiled potato on the side – was a way to serve a delicious meal at Passover time with only limited ingredients.
Beet borscht is also a quintessential food for the holiday of Shavuot, seven weeks after Passover. It’s customary to eat dairy foods on Shavuot, and the smetana sour cream customarily served with borscht made it a perfect food for the festival.
Since it’s forbidden to heat liquid on Shabbat, eating cold beet soup – served with a dollop of sour cream – was the perfect dish during the “third” meal of Shabbat, eaten late Saturday afternoon.
Before Eastern European Jews began pouring into America in the 1880s, Jewish immigrants in America tended to associate borscht with the meat cabbage soup version, which was another popular variant of the dish. (A recipe is provided below.) That soon changed, however, with the rise of a quintessentially American innovation: processed foods.
One of the first companies producing ready-made kosher food on an industrial scale in the US was I. Rokeach & Sons, founded by an eminent Jewish scholar from Russia named Israel Rokeach (1841-1933) in 1890 in New York. Rokeach produced ready-made borscht, sold in jars. While there is a huge variety of borscht recipes, varying by region, Rokeach produced a light, vegetarian, water-based beet borscht, similar to that Israel Rokeach enjoyed as a child in his native Russia. Rokeach’s vegetarian borscht became synonymous with the dish in America.
In 1932, the parve, lighter beet version of borscht was secured as the preferred borscht for millions of American Jews when Tillie and Hyman Gold founded the kosher food company Gold’s in Brooklyn. They specialized in beet products, particularly beet-infused horseradish and beet borscht, similar to Rokeach’s version. These products helped cement American Jews’ ideal of borscht as a light, sweet and tangy beet soup that turned a rich pink color when mixed with sour cream.
Jewish immigrants in New York City, like their non-Jewish neighbors, looked to the green Catskill Mountain area north of the city as a desirable vacation destination – an area that would soon be known as the Borscht Belt. Dr. Jeremy Dauber, a professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture at Columbia University, has observed that “What would become known as the Borscht Belt was the result of a very concrete physical situation. New York City would bake in the summer. Air-conditioning hadn’t been invented yet, so people wanted to get away from the asphalt and the cement and the concrete as much as they could, so they went up to the Catskills.”
Prof. Dauber quotes a travel guide from the 1890 that describes the town of Tannersville as “a great resort of our Israelite brethren.” The real heyday of the Borscht Belt, however, was the 1940s through the 1960s, when over a million vacationers, many of them Jews, would spend a few weeks at one of the many new hotels and guest houses that were popping up in the region to accommodate the enormous demand. At the time, many mainstream hotels made it clear that Jews were not welcome as customers. The hotels and resorts of the Catskills were the exception, providing beautiful, kosher, luxurious resort settings for Jews.
Grossingers resort, founded by a Jewish family of that name in the 1910s, was considered the most lavish Catskills hotel, boasting dozens of guest houses over three square miles of wooded countryside. Their kosher kitchens prepared traditional Jewish fare for 150,000 guests each year: breakfasts and lunches were milchig (dairy) and dinners were fleishig (meat). One of the hotel’s perks was its borscht that was served all day long, every day, 365 days a year. Abel Green, the editor of Variety magazine, referred to Grossinger’s famous borscht when he dubbed the entire region the Borscht Belt. Since many of the hotels and resorts in the region booked comedians and other entertainers, soon the brand of comedy that was popular in the Catskills at the time – gentle, self-mocking and very Jewish themed – became known as “Borscht Belt” humor.
Cook Your Own Borscht
There are myriad ways to prepare this delicious soup. Here are three Jewish versions.
Svekolnik (Chilled Beet Borscht)
This is the family recipe of Sasha Shor, whose Jewish family left the city of Kishinev in Moldova in 1978 and moved to Tennessee.
For the Borscht:
- 6-8 medium beets, peeled and quartered
- 10 cups water
- 3 T sugar
- 2 t salt
- ¼ t freshly ground black pepper
- Juice of one large lemon
To mix into the Borscht:
- 3 Persian or Kirby cucumbers, trimmed and chopped into ½” cubes
- Hard boiled eggs, sliced lengthwise (1 egg per serving)
- 1 small bunch of fresh dill, roughly chopped, stems discarded
- 3-4 scallions, sliced thinly, green and white parts
- 6 large radishes, trimmed and chopped into ½” cubes
- Lemon wedges (served on the side)
- Sour cream
Place the beets and water in a large stock pot. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 35-40 minutes or until beets are easily pierced with a fork.
Remove from heat and allow to cool completely. Once cooled, remove the beets, reserving the beet stock, and grate on the large side of a box grater. Return the grated beets to the beet stock.
Season with sugar, salt, pepper and lemon juice. Mix well and taste, adjusting for seasoning.
Move to the refrigerator to chill for a minimum of 8 hours, and ideally overnight.
To serve: ladle chilled soup into bowls (50% beet stock, 50% grated beets). Top each bowl with a spoonful of cucumbers, scallions, radishes, 2 hard boiled egg halves and a healthy pinch of chopped fresh dill. Add a dollop of sour cream and a final squeeze of lemon.
- ½ – 1lb piece of brisket
- 1 marrow bone (if available)
- 2 t salt
- 2 pints water
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 1 medium can (15 oz) whole peeled tomatoes in juice
- 4 t sugar
- Pinch of white pepper
- 1 small head of white cabbage
- 4 T sultanas (white raisins)
- Juice of 2 lemons or 2 t citric or tartaric acid (sour salt)
In a large soup pan put the brisket, bone, salt and water. Bring slowly to the boil, then skim the surface using a wet metal spoon. Add the onion, tomatoes, sugar and pepper. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat until the soup simers, cover and cook for a further 2 hours, or until the meat is almost tender. Discard the bone. While the soup is cooking, finely shred the cabbage, put it into a colander and sprinkle with some coarse salt. When the meat is almost tender, pour a kettleful of boiling water over the salted cabbage to take away any undue cabbagey flavor. DRain the cabbage and add to the soup.
Simmer for a further 30 minutes, or until the cabbage is tender. Add the sultanas and the lemon juice or citric acid and simmer for 5 minutes to blend the flavors. Serve plain or with a boiled potato.
(From The New Complete International Jewish Cookbook by Evelyn Rose. Robsson Book, London: 1997.
Fleishik Borscht (Eastern European Beet Soup With Meat)
- 2 lbs beef brisket, flanken, or stewing meat, cubed
- 2 beef marrow bones
- 8 cups water
- 2 lbs (8 medium) beets, peeled and diced
- 2 medium yellow onions, chopped
- 1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 T tomato paste or ¼ cup tomato puree
- 3 to 6 T cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, or fresh lemon juice
- 1 to 3 T granulated or brown sugar
- About 2 t table salt or 4 t kosher salt
- Ground black pepper to taste
- 2 bay leaves
- 12 oz (4 large) carrots, peeled and sliced or coarsely grated (optional)
- 1 cup shredded turnips or rutabagas (optional)
Place the meat, bones and water in a large, heavy pot. Bring to a boil, oer, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, skimming the foam from the surface occasionally ,for 1 hour.
Stir in the tomato paste, vinegar, sugar, salt, peper, bay leaves and, if using, carrots and/or turnips. Simmer until the meat is tender, about 30 minutes.
Serve hot with boiled potatoes.
(From The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ: 2010).