By Keith Pereña
Can you take a photo of me holding a bowl of borscht at Jumeirah Beach while the sun sets?” My Ukrainian friend, Lina, laughs at the idea as I profess my love for borscht as we chat online. The photos will have to wait however as Lina recently left Dubai. But I haven’t exaggerated — I really love borscht. As I write this, I take a moment to breathe, and it’s as if I can smell the scent of beetroot and tomatoes. It has been a while since I first encountered Ukraine’s national dish but that meeting of food and senses was nothing short of serendipitous.
It all started in November last year. In the middle of autumn, Ksenia, my tour guide asked me to try out borscht. We were having lunch at a traditional Ukrainian place. The borscht was served and Ksenia shared an anecdote: “When my mother asks me, what do you want for dinner? I ask her back, ‘borscht?’”. This was enough reason for me to pick up my spoon.
It was a sensory wonder. My nose (which was initially frigid due to the cold) woke up as an aromatic combination of veggies introduced themselves. The sour cream cutting a lush, white stream through the red soup caught my eyes. A little garnish of greens made sure it wasn’t just an overload of reds and whites. And the taste? Let me tell you, it makes you forget things. The broth and the vegetables melted on my tongue, leaving behind a playful note of salt and spice. The sour cream introduces a welcome bitterness and thickness to the soup that makes borscht hearty. My favourite part is, of course, chewing the veggies and letting those nuggets of broth explode in my mouth.
Thus, began a gastronomic love story. In my two week stay in Ukraine, all I longed for was that glorious beetroot soup, always served with a dollop of sour cream (locally known as Smetana) and savoury buns called pampushky.
“Borscht is believed to have originated from farmers from ancient times who needed something healthy to eat after a long day of ploughing the fields,” Yevheniy Semenov; a member of the Ukrainian community in the UAE said as I strived to know more about the dish.
Being one of Ukraine’s national symbols, borscht continues to evolve from its simple origins. With time, new ingredients were added, such as potatoes. “There is no one recipe, red borscht is the most popular, but every region around the country has a different take on it.” All these evolutions have turned the simple farmer’s soup into the treat it is today. Borscht is also included in the Ukrainian Army’s diet, it’s in the official MRE: meal ready to eat.
But despite the popularity of the dish, there are no Ukrainian restaurant in the UAE. To get around this, many Ukrainian expats prepare the dish at home. Despite the skill required to cook a faithful iteration, Yevheniy states that borscht is the one dish that brings ‘home’ right here. And who doesn’t want to be transported back home sans plane tickets?
Thankfully, an Indian chef decided to bring the taste of home to the Ukrainian community. Chef Chandra Swamy of the Courtyard WTC Abu Dhabi took on the challenge of cooking borscht. He says: “Making sure the right amount of spices was added proved to be a challenge.” The challenge paid off as it got the community’s nod — even going so far as commending the soup. Chef Chandra adds: “I was delighted that customers said it reminded them of home and how their mothers made the dish.” If you happen to read this, dear chef, I will make a trip to Abu Dhabi just to be reunited with my beloved bowl of borscht.
As my conversation with Yevheniy concluded we again began to ponder why there isn’t a Ukrainian restaurant in the country yet. Surely Dubai’s multicultural tapestry has room for such a popular soup. Hopefully there comes a day when those enamoured of the dish can simply waltz into a restaurant around town and enjoy it. Until then, I’ll be pining for my beetroot filled love served with pampushky and a dollop of Smetana.
Keith plans to be the next online sensation by ‘marrying’ a bowl of borscht