Saturday, January 12, 2013

What happened to borshch?

Prodnose: What happens to the food that defines a world when that world vanishes? What happened, in particular, to the dish that was once the common denominator of the Soviet kitchen, the dish that tied together the peasant and the cosmonaut, the high table of the Kremlin and the meanest canteen in the boondocks of the Urals? What happened to the beetroot soup that pumped like a main artery through the kitchens of the east Slav lands? What happened to borshch?

Myself: I had some last night actually.

Prodnose: Any quest for the origin of a quintessentially Russian dish such as borshch must begin with Pokhlebkin's culinary masterwork, The Cuisine Of Our Peoples ("Our" meaning "Soviet"). Pokhlebkin immediately acquaints you with a crucial detail: borshch isn't Russian. It's Ukrainian. "One could understand and forgive foreigners for calling borshch a Russian national dish," Pokhlebkin writes, "but when it turns out that they gleaned the information from Soviet cookbooks or from restaurant menus, one is embarrassed."

Myself: There was beetroot I needed to use up in the veg box, sirloin was half price at Tesco, and Discovery brand soured cream topping is rarely absent from my larder. Fate played the straight man,  pots and pans were rattled, and hey presto! din dins. Thanks for the tip about it being Ukrainian though. That'll come in handy next time I need to make small talk with one of the Klitschko brothers, you friggin' halfwit..

Prodnose: Pokhlebkin and the Soviet Union are dead, yet Borshchland lives on. Recipes, like birds, ignore political boundaries. Just as the British empire still has a culinary pulse, beating in a curry in Scotland or in the mug of builder's tea with sugar and milk you are handed in some roadhouse on the Karakorum Highway; just as the Ottoman empire breathes phantom breaths in little cups of muddy coffee from Thessaloniki to Basra; so the faint outline of the Tsarist-Soviet imperium still glimmers in the collective steam off bowls of beetroot and cabbage in meat stock, and the soft sound of dollops of sour cream slipping into soup, from the Black Sea to the Sea of Japan and, in emigration, from Brooklyn to Berlin.

Myself: .... from Brooklyn to Berlin .... to Browne's. The SW19 branch to be precise.
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