Beetroot. Beta vulgaris. Hmm. And borscht. Are you picturing what I am picturing? A weathered babushka – with a babushka – ladling steaming red soup into a tin bowl?
I have that image from actual memory. Not a Grimm’s fairy tale story read to me by my mother on a howling night, but a real live babushka: brown walnut face shyly smiling as she proudly served her national soup to me, a dangerous visitor from the land of Ronald Reagan and Mickey Mouse.
It was 1985 and I was visiting the USSR with a disparate group of fellow students and older travellers. Instead of going home to Florida and getting some much needed Vitamin D and a fix of Southern food (fried chicken, sweet potato pie, and, er, Lay’s potato chips) I had travelled during the Easter break from the University of Edinburgh, during the height of the Cold War, for a two-week cultural tour of Moscow and Leningrad. As you do.
The trip was amazing and scary in equal measure. The latter courtesy of an emergency hospitalisation due to a water-borne parasite, as well as being interrogated about my fellow tourists while lying in a skimpy gown attached to various machines (they thought someone was a drug courier). But that story is for another time.
I had the borscht in our hotel. And no, that wasn’t what made me sick. The borscht was absolutely delicious. It was about the only thing that was however. That and the black chewy bread we were given at every meal. All other meals were variations on unidentifiable grey gristly bits floating in mystery broth. It was pretty horrid. We only had borscht the one time.
I have always remembered the babushka who served us. It was the only time I ever saw her, and I think that she herself had made the soup. While everyone else looked at us depraved Westerners with a mixture of fear and envy, this tiny frail woman, whose wrists looked like they would snap under the weight of her cauldron, smiled twinkly as she carefully doled out soup to her indifferent, chattering guests. But after we took a sip we all fell silent. It was a special moment. This, the soup of kings and peasants, was a revelation. I suspect that if I had had the guts to follow this woman to the kitchen and indicated my pleasure I may have been rewarded with a seat at her kitchen table. I might have shared a meal in what would have been a cramped and steamy room in one of the anonymous grey high-rise monstrosities that blighted the outskirts of Moscow. But I didn’t.
So this borscht. Although many of us think of it as Russian, or Polish, it may actually be Ukranian. It is thought that with many dishes, the country with the most variations and geographical tinkerings is the likely originator. And Ukraine seems to have the most. I am not a food historian so I won’t be too adamant but from what I have read I think this may be true.
The borders in Eastern Europe have had their unfair share of redrawing, and its peoples scattered due to war and conflict. So, it is probably fair to say that the origin of borscht is equally divided and scattered. But it is such a fabulously giving and nourishing soup, with the scarlet beet at its heart, that it lives on in many kitchens across the globe. From high-tech stainless steel temples of cooking in richest Moscow, to pokey wee apartments in New York City, and in this rather tired-looking kitchen in Edinburgh: the heady fog of mulched and sweetly savoury vegetables simmering knows no borders.
Nutrition bit: Known for its blood-purifying properties, beetroot has a fantastic disease-fighting profile. At its most basic level it enhances the manufacture of white blood cells, stimulates red blood cell production and improves supply of oxygen to cells. This last point is very interesting because a small but well-conducted 2009 UK study demonstrated beetroot’s capacity to boost muscle stamina, probably because of the abundance of naturally occurring nitrates. This may have implications for athletes as well as ordinary folk going about their daily business, especially those with respiratory problems as beet nitrate helps the body to better use oxygen by boosting blood levels of nitric oxide.
I wouldn’t advise consuming the half-litre a day amount achieved in the study (potential side effects include hives and rapid heartbeat) as we can benefit from eating and drinking much smaller amounts, including lowered blood pressure. And don’t be alarmed if your urine or stool is pinkish or red. Many people are sensitive to the betalain and oxalic acid in beets and will experience ‘beetruria’, which looks scary but is completely harmless.