Monday, November 4, 2013

The Best Borshch in the Land

I had never tasted a beet until I went to college, a fact I find odd now that they are one of my most beloved vegetables. My mom did all the cooking in our household, so there was a very Asian slant to my diet. My knowledge of vividly colored root vegetables was limited to ube, a purple sweet potato featured in many Filipino desserts. So when I saw canned beets in the salad bar of my freshman dining hall, I mistook them for cranberry sauce. My mistake became apparent after my first bite, but I was pleasantly surprised and asked a dorm mate what I was eating. My question was met with strange looks. “It’s a beet. You’ve never seen a beet?”

I more than made up for 18 years of beet deprivation when I studied abroad. Russians love their beets, and I regularly availed myself of beet salads, beets slathered in mayo, beets grated over pickled herring, beets mixed with prunes and sunflower oil, and beet soup. I became especially obsessed with my host mother’s bright red borshch. But since I didn’t know how to cook (or speak Russian), I never bothered to get the recipe.

Over the subsequent eight years, I thought about her borshch many times. I tried to recreate it in San Francisco, but I was so disappointed by my sorry imitation that I declared it inedible and threw out the whole pot in a fit of anger. I made a perfectly adequate borshch last month, but it still didn’t measure up to Olga’s Petrovna’s perfect borshch.

Last month, I paid a visit to my old host mother.  After a few hours of catching up, which partially consisted of her reminiscing about how “terrified and silent” she had thought I was, I turned the conversation to borshch.  Having won her over with my new and improved personality (i.e., a vocabulary numbering in the double digits), she happily agreed to give me a borshch-making tutorial. I returned last week for my master klass, eager to learn OP’s secrets once and for all.  She had already taken care of the prep work, so all I had to do was jot down an approximation of her recipe while she effortlessly threw together a pot of soup. 

The array of veggies, diced and ready

OP working her babushka magic

One hour later, I was praising OP’s borshch, which was just as good as I had remembered it.  “You know, I’ve been thinking about this borshch for eight years,” I told her.

Olga Petrovna seemed surprised that her soup had made such an impression. “Really? It’s not my favorite. It’s not even my second favorite.” And there went all my progress in demonstrating what a non-weirdo I am.

Best борщ ever.
And for any of you adventurous enough to try it, here’s the recipe (all measurements are wildly approximated):

Olga Petrovna’s Perfect Borshch

  • Some cabbage (~1/3 of a medium cabbage), shredded 
  • 3 small potatoes, peeled and chopped into ½-inch cubes 
  • Olive oil…maybe ½ a cup? 
  •  ½ carrot, grated 
  • 1 large beet, grated
  • 1 small tomato, diced 
  • 70g tomato paste 
  • 1 stalk of celery, sliced 
  • 1 small onion, diced 
  • 1 small red pepper, diced 
  • 1 T white vinegar 
  • 1 T sugar 
  • Large bunch of dill
  • Large bunch of parsley 
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced 
  • Smetana (Russian sour cream) 
  1. Heat a generous amount of olive oil in a straight-sided saute pan.  Sauté the onions until they’re vaguely transparent (~5 minutes), add celery and pepper (sauté for another 5 minutes). Add the carrots and sauté for another 5ish minutes. Add the beets and tomato, and sauté for another 5 minutes. Salt and pepper liberally, then throw in the tomato paste. 
  2. Add water to cover the veggies (about enough water to roughly equal the volume of the veggies).  When I went for a more specific amount, OP said, “However much you want!”  Cover the pan, and let it simmer for about 10 minutes. 
  3. Meanwhile, bring a half pot of water to a boil. Add the cabbage and potato and boil for about 15 minutes.
  4. Once the cabbage and potatoes have been boiled and the veggies have simmered, add the pan of vegetables to the pot of water/cabbage/potatoes. Add more salt (maybe a tablespoon).
  5. Add 1 T (or so) of 9% vinegar. This will make your borshch more vibrantly red.
  6. Add 1 T of sugar. Taste it and decide if it needs more salt/pepper/sugar/vinegar/Russian love. 
  7. Mince up your herbs and garlic and stir them into the borshch. 
  8. Ladle up your borshch, stir in a dollop of smetana, and enjoy!


  1. Mmm. That looks seriously amazing. I also have the problem of never being able to recreate a dish as well as I imagined it, particularly with foreign food :(

    1. Let me know if you want the recipe and I'll pass it along. I think the secret is that she sautes all the veggies first (except the cabbage/potatoes). And it's totally vegetarian-friendly!

  2. That looks amazing! I lived in Moscow for 2 years, and I miss all of the delicious soups I used to eat there. Please post the recipe!

    1. Post updated to include the recipe! Let me know how it works out if you try it!

  3. Hmm, I am usually 110% interested in consuming your culinary creations, but this sounds ... interesting. Does it have a savory-pickled taste?

    1. No, it doesn't taste like pickles at all. Trust me, it's amazing, and you know how self-critical I am of my cooking. I'll make it when you come visit me (hint, hint!).

  4. That's a simplified recipe.
    The original one my grandma cooked when she wanted to impress us was similar to this but beet was fermented (сквашена), no potato, no tomato (these were popularized to Europe from South America around 17th century, and the recipe of borshch is waaay older).

    Good luck in fight against being intimidated in Moscow! )