Any visitor to Russia will soon encounter a stalwart of the country’s culinary scene: beetroot. It comes in many different guises from drinks to salads, and no guide to the humble root vegetable in Russia’s past and present is complete without mentioning the country’s worldfamous beetroot soup: borscht.
Ukraine is often cited as the place of origin for borscht, with the name thought to derive from the Slavic word for cow parsnip, or from a fermented drink made from that plant. It took a while before the cow parsnip was replaced with the more palatable beetroot, and after centuries of cooking the concoction, borscht has become a staple of both Russian and Eastern European cuisine – reaching international shores in the twentieth century when it was exported by the region’s diaspora.
Experts disagree over a ‘pure’ recipe for borscht, but most contend that it is made with beef stock and includes beetroot and other vegetables such as cabbage, potatoes and carrots (it is not uncommon to find apples in there too). The distinctive flavour comes from the slow cooking of the vegetables before they are added to the stock. The soup is usually served with a dollop of sour cream and a sprig of dill.
It’s no surprise that the beetroot is such a staple ingredient in Russian food, given that it’s easy to grow, nutritious and versatile in the kitchen. Many Russians cultivate beetroots in the garden of their small dachas (country houses), but on a larger scale Russia is one of the world’s major beetroot producers. One travel company offering coach trips between St Petersburg and Moscow decided to call itself the Beetroot Bus, because the route passes so many fields of the vegetable while en route.
Beetroots are appreciated in Russia for its beautifying and health properties too – one Russian politician even advised women recently to go for the “natural look” and use beetroot as a lipstick instead of imported products.
The beetroot is a veritable superfood too, packed with calcium, iron, folic acid and vitamins A and C, fibre, manganese and potassium. It is known to aid liver and digestive functions, lower blood pressure and cholesterol as well as boost stamina. Betacyanin, the pigment that gives the plant its rich reddish-purple colour, is a powerful antioxidant, and studies have shown that it may slow the growth of certain tumors.
No wonder then that it is a part of Russian medicinal folklore. Anyone looking to get rid of a blocked nose, for example, is advised to grind up and juice beetroot, onion and aloe vera to create their own nose drops. Many Russians also swear by the health-giving properties of a drink called beet kvass, made through a process of lacto-fermentation, giving it a salty, earthy flavour. Simple to make, all you need is water, salt, whey, beetroot and time to let it ferment until it reaches a strength you like.
Of course some Russians prefer to turn to the stronger stuff to get rid of a cold, and beetroot even challenges the potato as a key ingredient of Russia’s other national drink, samogon (moonshine). Although its ingredients vary, beetroot is the most common one, and while the unauthorised sale of samogon is illegal in Russia, production for personal consumption has been legal since 1997. A home brew you can grow in your garden? Beet that.