Mexico has its tequila, France its champagne and Cyprus its haloumi cheese. Yet some national dishes have inevitably led to squabbling. Israel and Lebanon both claim hummus as their own; Chile and Peru have argued for more than a century over which nation concocted the pisco sour.
So too with borscht. Long associated with Russia, the flavorful beetroot soup is actually of Ukrainian origin. At least that’s the message behind a June 24 event at Washington’s Melrose Georgetown Hotel organized by Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States.
Attended by at least 50 people, including State Department officials, members of Congress and half a dozen DC-based European ambassadors, the gathering was part of Ukraine’s ongoing lobbying to get UNESCO to recognize borscht as part of its “intangible cultural heritage.”
A typical recipe for homemade Ukrainian borscht — which has long been the ultimate comfort food during Eastern Europe’s long, cold winters — includes beets, carrots, baking potatoes, onions, tomato paste, cabbage, celery, garlic and parsley. Meat (pork sausage, chicken or beef broth) is usually added to the mix, though vegetarian borscht is also increasingly popular.
“Today we will have the opportunity not only to taste borscht, but also you will see the magic of cooking the borscht, and you will all understand why we Ukrainians love it so much,” Markarova told her guests. “It’s our traditional dish, so it’s hard to find any Ukrainian who doesn’t like borscht. We eat it fresh and the same day it was cooked, and sometimes it’s even better the next day, or the day after.”
Then came a short presentation by Ukraine’s self-styled “borscht ambassador,” Ievgen Klopotenko.
“My goal for the future is to show Ukraine to the world through our food and tastes,” said Klopotenko, winner of the 2015 MasterChef Ukraine competition, who is currently leading efforts to make borscht officially Ukrainian — at least in the eyes of UNESCO.
It doesn’t help that Ukraine’s chief rival for bragging rights to borscht is Russia, which since 2014 has supported militants in eastern Ukraine. The conflict has led to the declaration of self-styled “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as Russia’s annexation of Crimea; in the ensuing six years, more than 13,000 people have been killed as a result.
Moscow only added flame to the fire when a tweet from the Kremlin called borscht — usually served with a generous dollop of sour cream — “one of the country’s most famous and beloved dishes.”
But, as Markarova diplomatically pointed out, “there is no battle today. This is a very friendly gathering.”
And in that friendly spirit, guests helped prepare not one but two borscht dishes. Donning white aprons, they shredded carrots, beets, onions and cabbage. One recipe, nicknamed the “congressional borscht,” included beef and was supervised by Dima Martseniuk, executive chef at Veselka, a famous Ukrainian restaurant in New York’s East Village.
The other, nicknamed the “ambassador’s borscht,” was prepared by the Ukrainian Embassy’s own chef, Mariya Voronetska, and featured kosher chicken — “to celebrate the country’s diversity, including our very rich Jewish culture,” according to Markarova.
The list of dignitaries included Ambassadors Jean-Arthur Régibeau of Belgium; Kristjan Prikk of Estonia; Davi Bakradze of Georgia; Maris Selga of Latvia; Audra Plepyté of Lithuania; Eugene Caras of Moldova, and Piotr Wilczek of Poland.
Also in attendance: Rep. Douglas Lamborn (R-Colorado); George Kent, deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s European and Eurasian Bureau; George Chopivsky, president of the Ukrainian Development Company; Myroslava Gongadze, head of Voice of America’s Ukrainian service; and Mark Levin, executive vice-chairman and CEO of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry.