History has seen many culinary conflicts. Israel and Lebanon compete for hummus, Australia and New Zealand cross swords over the origins of “Pavlova” dessert, Italy and China still haven’t settled a score regarding spaghetti, and even the origins of Swedish meatballs are better to avoid at the table if Turks are nearby – king Carl XII brought the recipe after visiting Bendery (modern Moldova), which were under Turkish rule at the time.
In the end, all battles for food are won by those who talked the loudest. This is exactly what empires did, and yet globalization and technical progress give an opportunity to each and every one to raise their voice. Therefore, justice may be restored in many culinary issues.
“Culinary diplomacy” has lately become an element of the “soft power” policy. “Days of Russian cuisine” is a regular activity of Russian MFA all over the world. We decided to spread the word about the dishes which Russia actively portrays as its own while actually having nothing to do with them, since they were discovered as a result of occupation and imperialism.
Probably the hottest battle is waged for borsch – a beetroot soup with cabbage. A first place in all the Russian “national cuisine” rankings and official declarations made by Kremlin cannot change the simple truth – red borsch practically flows in the veins of Ukrainians. They started making it in Ukraine back in the Middle Ages, when Russia as a state didn’t even exist and Moskovia hadn’t yet decided to appropriate the history of Kyivan Rus. The very word “borsch” came into Russian language way later, in the XIX century.
There is likely no other dish mentioned as often in Ukrainian culture as borsch. Songs, fairy tales, poems, proverbs, lullabies, sophisticated psychological novels and chilling thrillers – it is everywhere. There are more than 300 variations of this dish – made with beef, pork, chicken, mushrooms, sausages, mutton, goose meat, salo. Of course, vegan and vegetarian options are available.
If you ask a Ukrainian which soup is their favorite, they will say “borsch” without even thinking. Should you keep the interrogation going and ask about the second favorite soup, there’s still no way you’ll catch a Ukrainian off guard – they will definitely go with “green borsch”. Yes, that’s right – it may also be classified by color: red, green and white.
2. Kholodnik/ Saltibarscai
It feels like a fixation on the whole soup thing, right? That’s true, joking aside when it comes to soups in Eastern Europe. This cold beetroot soup is very popular in Lithuania, Poland and Belarus. You might say it’s the gazpacho of Eastern Europe. Pickled beetroot, kefir and fresh vegetables are the essence of this dish, which is served without meat. Fun fact: instead of bread, it usually goes with boiled potatoes!
Potato pancakes from Belarus. Oh no, we can already feel the judgmental gazes of all those in favor of the Jewish latkes, rösti from Switzerland, Czech bramboraks and American hash browns! And of course we wouldn’t dare to offend the fans of Ukrainian deruny, dedicated to which there is even a special festival – and which have been enshrined in a monument of their own! Still, nobody will doubt the special place potatoes hold at the culinary Olympus of Belarus. The very name “draniki” originates from the Belarusian word “драць” ([drats’]), meaning “to grate”. They are served with sour cream and sometimes with ground meat. Hungry yet?
Mutton sliced into cubes, usually coal-roasted. The word itself doesn’t sound Russian. It is actually of Turkic origin. As for the dish, it was discovered in Russian Empire as late as in the XVIII century, thanks to Crimean Tatars. It is especially popular in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. In many Western countries this way of serving meat is known as kebab, and yet kebab may take a form of a cutlet, while shashlik is always a single piece of meat. The issue of marinade sauce raises debates as heated as those on the most philosophical questions faced by mankind. Which is why it is a smart decision to avoid this discussion if there are any knives nearby. Just to play safe, you know?
Dish made of rice, which absolutely has to be crumbly. Meat, spices, dried fruit to add are a go. It is one of the most well-known dishes of Central Asia, and Tajiks, Turks, Afghani, Turkmeni, Azerbaijani, Khirgizi have all mastered it, but still Uzbeks are the ones to lay the biggest claim to it. Which is why when you see a “Russian plov” in a restaurant, make sure to ask your waiter what kind of plov they serve exactly: Fergana, Samarkand, Khwarazm, Bokhara or Tashkent way? If you notice confusion, don’t back down and carry on: “Or maybe it is one of the 30 kinds made in Azerbaijan?” Stay curious!
6. Chicken Kyiv
A tender chicken cutlet with a piece of butter inside. The name really speaks for itself. Only those who struggled with geography would believe the dish originated in Russia. This name is also used in a context of a historical speech by George Bush (Senior) who back in 1991 warned Ukrainians against “suicidal nationalism” and urged them to remain a part of the USSR. William Safire, columnist of The New York Times, coined the term “Chicken Kyiv speech”, accusing George Bush of cowardice.
7. Dolma or Holubtsi
Grape (or cabbage) leaves stuffed with meat and rice. This dish originates in the countries of Western and Central Asia, Southern Caucasus. This name is derived from the Turkic word “dolmak” , which means “to fill”. The dish was very popular in the Ottoman Empire – so popular, in fact, that it was served at the sultan’s table.
In Ukraine it is more known under the romantic name of “holubtsi”. We don’t really know whether the shape of the dish reminded Ukrainians of doves – “holuby” – or whether they, well, dolmak-ed those inside. While cabbage leaves are the most common choice, stuffing varies. It may be rice, maize grits or pearl barley. Served with sour cream – because everything is better with sour cream!
Only a total amateur would call nalysnyky “pancakes” or – even worse – “blini”. Because nalysnyky are not your regular pancakes, but pancakes delicately stuffed with cottage or brined cheese, mushrooms, apples, berries, jam or meat. And there’s more! Then they are carefully made into rolls or shaped into squares and fried again. No doubt here: those who like assembling holubtsi, nalysnyky or Rubik’s cube are usually the same people. In Poland and Ukraine nalysnyky are considered national heritage. Russians usually stuff them with caviar, and this is where the key difference lies.
These are just several examples we’d collected before we started starving. There are many more out there, because cultural appropriation, even in the seemingly unlikely places like cuisine, is a tool wannabe empires use at large. Erasing others’ history and heritage is bad table manners, and they encourage it for their own gain. Now that you are armed with this knowledge – and, hopefully, cutlery – it is finally a good time to enjoy some delicious food!