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Borscht (English: /ˈbɔːrʃ, ˈbɔːrʃt/ (listen)) is a sour soup common in Eastern Europe and Northern Asia. In English, the word "borscht" is most often associated with the soup's variant of Ukrainian origin, made with red beetroots as one of the main ingredients, which give the dish its distinctive red color.


A herbaceous plant with a thick stem, hairy and serrated leaves, and large white umbels
Common hogweed, originally the principal ingredient of borscht
Borscht derives from a soup originally made by the Slavs from common hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium, also known as cow parsnip), which lent the dish its Slavic name.[12] Growing commonly in damp meadows throughout the north temperate zone, hogweed was used not only as fodder (as its English names suggest), but also for human consumption – from Eastern Europe to Siberia, to northwestern North America.[72][73]

The Slavs collected hogweed in May and used its roots for stewing with meat,.[12] As for the stems, leaves, and umbels; these would be chopped, covered with water and left in a warm place to ferment. After a few days, lactic and alcoholic fermentation produced a mixture described as "something between beer and sauerkraut".[74] This fermented product was then used for cooking a soup.

The said soup—with aforementioned fermented hogweed concoction used—was characterized by a mouth-puckering amount of sourness in its taste, while its smell was described as pungent[75] As the Polish ethnographer Łukasz Gołębiowski wrote in 1830, "Poles have been always partial to tart dishes, which are somewhat peculiar to their homeland and vital to their health."[l][76] Simon Syrenius (Szymon Syreński), a 17th-century Polish botanist, described "our Polish hogweed"[m] as a vegetable that was well known throughout Poland, Ruthenia, Lithuania and Samogitia (that is, most of the northern part of Eastern Europe), typically used for cooking a "tasty and graceful soup"[n] with capon stock, eggs, sour cream and millet. More interested in the plant's medicinal properties than its culinary use, he also recommended pickled hogweed juice as a cure for fever or hangover.[77]

One of the earliest possible mentions of borscht as a soup is found in the diary of German merchant Martin Gruneweg, who visited Kyiv in 1584. After Gruneweg reached river Borshchahivka in Kyiv's vicinity on 17 October 1584, he wrote down a local legend saying that the river was so named because there was a borscht market. However, he doubted the story noting that: "Ruthenians buy borscht rarely or never, because everyone cooks their own at home as it's their staple food and drink".[78]

Another early written reference to the Slavic hogweed soup can be found in Domostroy (Domestic Order), a 16th-century Russian compendium of moral rules and homemaking advice. It recommends growing the plant "by the fence, around the whole garden, where the nettle grows", to cook a soup of it in springtime and reminds the reader to, "for the Lord's sake, share it with those in need".[19]

Hogweed borscht was mostly a poor man's food. The soup's humble beginnings are still reflected in Polish fixed expressions, where "cheap like borscht"[o] is the equivalent of "dirt cheap" (also attested as a calque in Yiddish and Canadian English),[79][80] whereas adding "two mushrooms into borscht"[p] is synonymous with excess.[81] For the professors of the University of Kraków, who led a monastic way of life in the 17th century, hogweed borscht was a fasting dish which they ate regularly (sometimes with deviled eggs) from Lent till Rogation days.[82] It was uncommon on the royal table,[12] although according to the 16th-century Polish botanist Marcin of Urzędów – citing Giovanni Manardo, a court physician to the Jagiellonian kings of Hungary – the Polish-born King Vladislaus II used to have a Polish hogweed-based dish prepared for him at his court in Buda.[83]

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