Thursday, 12 April 2018

Q80: What is the Origin of ‘borshch’?

During Orthodox Easter dinner on April 9th here in Ottawa, I served my traditional Doukhobor vegetable soup — borshch — which I cooked using my mother’s recipe.

My guests asked a question that never occurred to me:
'What is the Origin of borshch'

Tarasoff Doukhobor borshch.

In the past I was more concerned about the English transliteration of the Russian spelling which does not have a ‘t’ at the end. Q76: Correct Spelling of borshch?

Historically this was a staple Slavic poor peoples’ peasant soup, made year-round with local ingredients.

A Google search for ‘origins of borshch, borshcht, borsch, borscht’ returns what appear to be well researched histories with similar information. Russian and English Wikipedia histories differ. Here is a summary with 'Sources Online' listed below:
  • The origin of borsch is unknown, most likely, it appeared on the territory formerly occupied by Kievan Rus. Apparently, the widespread opinion that "borsch" [brshch] is an Old [East] Slavic name for beets, should be attributed to folk etymology .. [the word] ... is not … in dictionaries of ancient Slavic dialects, ....(2) (Russian Wikipedia)
  • ... [a soup like] borshch used to be the national food in Ancient Rome (8th century BC), where cabbages and beets were specifically cultivated for that purpose. … the modern version of borshch appeared around the 15th century. … the name came ... from the plant borshchevik (hogweed, cow parsnip) – one of the key ingredients … [and] or, from the word brshch, which meant beet in Old Slavonic. (1,4,5)
  • In the beginning, borscht was made with brsh root [Old East Slavonic term], not red beet root. Brsh, common hogweed ... was ... fed to swine ... also human food ... in the spring peasant would gather tender brsh leaves to cook as green and store the ... roots for winter soup. ... borshch ... originated in Ukraine. (page 5) (1)
  • Variations are widely distributed by migrating Slavs and peoples who carried and modified their borshch recipes around the world, including China. (3)
  • Variations are dictated by the land, weather, and local traditions, but also by circumstance: people from different cultures intermarry; families are both willingly and forcibly moved. (6)
  • Part of the family of sour soups, borscht is originally Ukrainian, … the beetroot-centered crimson version being the best-known. … white borscht, also called sour rye soup ... green borscht, packed with sorrel leaves [Щавель кислый, sour shavel’ ]. The consistent theme is that the soup has a sour taste, and that is can be eaten warm or cold (8)
  • “There are literally hundreds of recipes,” explained Halyna Klid, of the University of Alberta’s Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. “In Chernihiv province, a handful of buckwheat is added. In Lviv province, people use hunter's sausage.” …. There is also such a thing as bad borscht. (5)
  • borsch, borscht, … was not originally cooked with beets … the first experiment in transmitting the human voice from orbital flight involved the broadcasting of a borsch recipe ? (Burlakoff 1)
  • With nearly 200 fasting days per year, the Christian Orthodox Church had a profound influence on dietary habits of the faithful ... the most important of the prolonged fasts were the weeks before Christmas and Easter. Without meat, borscht got it's flavor from vegetables, ... (page 8) ... even a watermelon soup, ... in Paraguay, is called borscht. (page 9) (1)
  • Borscht belt is a "region of predominantly Jewish resorts in and around the Catskill Mountains of New York" (9)
Sources Online
  1. Gueldner, Rose Marie. A Taste of Tradition: Borscht, Glückstal Colonies Research Association Newsletter, November 2016, pages 5-9.
  2. Борщ, Wikipedia (Russian).
  3. Borscht, Wikipedia (English).
  4. Skorchenko, Evgenia. Of Russian origin: Borshch, RT Russiapedia.
  5. Schaap, Rosie. How borscht crosses the border between Ukraine and Russia: Can a pot of soup contain clues to the character of a country and its crisis?, Al Jazeera America, April 10, 2014.
  6. Hercules, Olia. Let Me Count the Ways of Making Borscht, The New Yorker, December 7, 2017.
  7. Meek, James. The story of borshch, The Guardian, March 15, 2008.
  8. Charney, Noah. Cooking the Classics: Borscht, Fine Dining Lovers, July 11, 2017.
  9. borscht (n.), Online Etymology Dictionary.
Books by Burlakoff
  1. Burlakoff, Nikolai. The World of Russian Borsch, Aelita Press, 2013, 240 pages.
  2. Burlakoff, Nikolai. Erol Beet and the Borsch Angel: How the Borsch Angel Got Her Name, Aelita Press, June 28, 2012. 32 pages.


  1. Don Tarasoff, Victoria, BC13 April 2018 at 09:24

    My mother was “English” and did not know Russian. Before she married my father she lived with his parents in Saskatoon for some months. They hardly spoke English but taught my mother to make bread, cabbage rolls and borshch. She faithfully reproduced their recipes all her life. As I remember her borshch was based on a boiled chicken, potatoes, carrots, onions and especially dill in a little cloth sack. It got better with age

    My wife Marianne is from Moscow. We visited Grand Forks and ate at the Yale hotel. Lots of Doukhobor cuisine.

    We had borshc- big fight between the Doukhobor waitress and Marianne. Waitress said it is borshch; Marianne said it is “schee”, real borshch is made with beets. Have you heard of “schee” as a vegetable soup without beets?

    1. You wife is right from her point of view. Regional traditional soups vary AND diaspora descendants of Slavic families tend to forget their Slavic language and call all soups simply "borshch." Spiritual Christians in America all make their "borshch" (like shchi, щи) different than each other and Doukhobors in Canada. Our families have forgotten, or did not know, the names for traditional Russian soups: Shchi, Rassolnik, Solyanka, Kapusniak, etc. — all which they probably call "borshch."

  2. Rev. F. Mark Mealing, Kaslo, BC13 April 2018 at 09:29

    Dear Koozma:

    '...the popular Slavic soup called 'borscht"....'

    Oh my! & what of the Doukhobor proverb I heard in the early 70s:

    ‘Soup is soup, Borscht is Borscht: how could they be the same?’

  3. Legend: One of the popular but unproved legends says the first-ever borshch was cooked by the Cossacks in 1637 during a two-month siege of the Azov fortress in Southern Russia, which was occupied by the Turkish army. Feeding four thousand Cossacks in a camp was problematic, so they collected anything edible they could find and threw it all together. Everyone liked this thick and nourishing mix of vegetables and meat, and came up with the name borshch, supposedly making an anagram of a popular fish soup called “shcherba”.
    Latin name: Heracleum sphondylium (already used in soups in Roman Empire).
    Linguistic: Its name is possibly related to the brushlike, sharp-cornered leaves of this plant (Germanic *burst : Slavic *borshch)
    Gunter Schaarschmidt, University of Victoria

    1. We left this Cossack story out because it was unproven and more to read, though interesting. Readers who follow the links can find that story and more, like Burlakoff's books.

    2. Thanks for the history, guys.