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Not Just Soup: Ukraine Seeks 'Cultural Heritage' Listing For Borscht

The Ukrainian Culture Ministry says it intends to seek recognition for borscht on a UNESCO cultural heritage list. (file photo)
The Ukrainian Culture Ministry says it intends to seek recognition for borscht on a UNESCO cultural heritage list. (file photo)

KYIV -- Ukraine is preparing to lay a special claim to borscht – the hearty, soothing beet soup that's been a salve to people across a broad swath of Eurasia, and to their descendants around the world, for centuries.

A Kyiv-based celebrity chef who cites neighboring Russia's proprietary feelings about one of the ultimate comfort foods as a motive is helping cook up a bid for recognition of borscht on an Intangible Cultural Heritage list maintained by the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

In an "important step" toward a UNESCO application, the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information Policy said on October 6 that it will include "the culture of preparation of Ukrainian borscht" on a national list of five "elements of intangible cultural heritage" – the only one that involves food rather than embroidery or other traditions. The culture minister is expected to sign off on the decision soon.

According to Yevhen Klopotenko, borscht has been made in Ukraine for some 1,500 years. (file photo)
According to Yevhen Klopotenko, borscht has been made in Ukraine for some 1,500 years. (file photo)

The ministry said that the Institute of Culture of Ukraine, a nongovernmental organization founded by chef Yevhen Klopotenko, had been the driving force behind the effort to elevate the dish -- a steamy hot standby that may be particularly welcome in winter but is consumed year-round -- and obtain UNESCO recognition.

Klopotenko, who won a Master Chef cooking competition in Ukraine five years ago, said that the Ukrainian heritage designation is important because of what he called the Russian claim that "borscht is Russian soup."

"It was necessary to defend borscht because it wasn't about food, it's about national identity," Klopotenko, a Le Cordon Bleu culinary school graduate, wrote in a Facebook post that concluded, "Glory to Ukraine!"

The UNESCO list celebrates "cultural practices and expressions" of participating countries, and Ukrainian authorities said that the designation, if achieved, would not be exclusive -- so it would not identify borscht as Ukrainian rather than Russian.

Still, it could add a potentially powerful ingredient to informal arguments that crop up on social media and elsewhere over the provenance of the dish. It could also play into bitter disputes over cultural heritage and Ukrainian identity.

Ukrainians have long taken issue with prominent Russian historical narratives that seek to belittle Ukraine and the Ukrainian language. Russian President Vladimir Putin said last year that Russians and Ukrainians are "one people," and told U.S. President George W. Bush in 2008 that Ukraine -- independent since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 -- was "not even a country."

Tension over such issues has increased sharply in the six-plus years since Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula, incited separatism in eastern Ukraine, and backed anti-Kyiv forces in a war that has killed more than 13,000 people since April 2014.

Klopotenko co-owns a Kyiv restaurant, has a breakfast show on Ukrainian TV, and heads a project that provides simple recipes to schools and health-care facilities across the country.

On Facebook, he wrote that his successful presentation to a Culture Ministry council was the product of lengthy and painstaking research that included sending expeditionary teams around the country of 44 million to document varying recipes for borscht, which he said has been cooked and eaten in the region for 1,500 years.

There are certainly dozens, perhaps hundreds of recipes for borscht -- called borshch in Ukrainian and Russian -- with popular ingredients going in along with the beets, including cabbage, beans, and many more items.

WATCH: Yevhen Klopotenko Tries One Of Many Borscht Recipes (in Ukrainian)

In fact, 'intangible' might seem like a misnomer when it comes to the colorful, fragrant, substantial soup that is sometimes topped with a generous dollop of sour cream

Klopotenko's research "involved more than a year of daily and monotonous work…but yesterday I took five liters of borscht to the expert council, placed the pot on the table and told them we need to recognize this today," he wrote.

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    Mark Raczkiewycz

    Mark Raczkiewycz is a Ukraine-based journalist. A former RFE/RL news editor in Washington, he is the Kyiv correspondent for the New Jersey-based Ukrainian Weekly newspaper. He also contributes to the English-language Kyiv Post and has reported for Bloomberg, the Financial Times, the Associated Press, the Irish Times, The New York Times, and other publications. 

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