Kyiv, Ukraine — Don’t tell Ievgen Klopotenko that borsch is just food. For him, that bowl of beetroot and meat soup embodies everything Ukraine is fighting for.
“Food is a powerful social tool through which you can unite or divide a nation,” said Klopotenko, Ukraine’s best-known chef and the man who took command in the middle of a bloody war that would become an unlikely cultural victory for Russia.
“It is our symbol,” Klopotenko said. “Borsch is our leader.”
If that seems hyperbolic, you underestimate how fundamental borsch (the preferred Ukrainian spelling) is to the soul of this country. More than a meal, it represents history, family and centuries of tradition. It is eaten always and everywhere, and its preparation is described almost reverentially.
And now, at the one-year mark of the war with Russia, Klopotenko uses the dish as a rallying call to preserve Ukrainian identity. It is an act of culinary defiance against one of the reasons why Moscow has so much credit for the war – that Ukraine is culturally indistinguishable from Russia.
Thanks to a lobbying effort that Klopotenko helped lead, UNESCO issued a snap decision last July declaring Ukrainian borsch an “intangible cultural heritage” asset in need of preservation. Although the declaration noted that borsch is consumed elsewhere in the region, and no exclusivity was implied, the move angered Russia.
A Russian foreign ministry spokesman accused Ukraine of appropriating the dish and called the move an act of xenophobia and Nazism.
But in Ukraine, where Russian was as widely spoken as Ukrainian was until a year ago, the declaration legitimized a notion that many had difficulty articulating.
“People started to realize that they are Ukrainians,” Klopotenko said recently as he prepared borsch at his apartment in Kyiv. From his living room window, the view was dominated by a high-rise that had been destroyed by Russian missiles.
“Many people started eating Ukrainian food. A lot of people started coming to Ukrainian traditions,” he said.
Klopotenko, 36, is unlikely to get headlines during a war that has left hundreds of thousands dead or injured on both sides. But the TV chef and restaurateur – recognizable by an unruly head of curls, rapid-fire dialogue and a keen sense of fashion – began his mission to elevate Ukrainian food years before Russia’s February 2022 invasion.
Although he was born in Kyiv, 5-year-old Klopotenko had spent months at a time living with his grandmother, who had moved just outside of Manchester, England. Built on bland Soviet-era cuisine, this was a culinary awakening. He came across waves of new flavors and ingredients, experiences that put him on the path to restaurant work.
His break came in 2015 when he won the TV competition “MasterChef Ukraine”. He said that would lead to studies at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and later to a successful campaign to reform the cafeteria menus in Soviet-influenced Ukrainian schools.
Always in the background was his understanding that Ukrainian food – according to the country’s culture in fact – was not true to himself. He felt that much of Ukrainian identity, from language and food to fashion and architecture, was subject to Russian influence. Before the beginning of Soviet rule in 1917, Ukrainian art was more diverse and robust. That was scrapped in favor of a palate more aligned with socialist sensibilities.
Even after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Ukrainian art did not bounce back much. But Russia’s invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 was a catalyst. Seeking to recognize and own Ukrainian heritage, Klopotenko and others began researching pre-Soviet Ukrainian cooking, hoping to bring it back to the mainstream and give people another basis to reclaim their culture.
In 2019, he opened his restaurant in Kyiv, 100 Rokiv Tomu Vpered (100 Years Ago Ahead), a reference to the cuisine that existed in Ukraine before Soviet rule, and what it could be again. The menu draws heavily on flavors and ingredients that many have forgotten about.
Roasted parsnips with smoked sour cream. Buckwheat bread flavored with chamomile. Banosh, a kind of corn porridge topped with cottage cheese, mushrooms and apples.
And, of course, borsch seasoned with the traditional smoked pears. Written records connect the recipe to Ukraine over the centuries. The effort to declare it a cultural asset began in 2018, when Klopotenko enlisted the help of Maryna Sobotiuk, an adviser to Ukraine’s Ministry of Information Policy and co-founder of the Ukrainian Institute of Culture.
They put together a dossier that would make the country’s application to UNESCO. Their work gained more urgency after the Russian invasion a year ago and received the blessing of the Ukrainian government.
Like Klopotenko, Sobotiuk said it was a cause much deeper than the dinner.
“Our neighbors want to take not only our territory, but also our culture and history,” she said, adding that culinary heritage is a soft power that has great potential to inspire and motivate. “It’s important to give people something that they can align with Ukraine other than war.”
Darra Goldstein, a food historian and expert on Eastern European restaurants, agreed and noted that the difficulty of setting culinary boundaries does not diminish the cultural import of the dishes.
“Claiming ownership of dishes is not a question, as the exact origin of any particular dish is often difficult to find. Instead, food goes to the heart of national belonging, how people define who they are,” she said.
Borsch was, of course, just the beginning for Klopotenko. With more Ukrainians rejecting Russian culture since the start of the war, and consumption of traditional Ukrainian foods on the rise, he and others see an opportunity to codify and celebrate more of their own.
While UNESCO is unlikely to grant similar status to other Ukrainian dishes – Kyiv chicken, garlicky pampushky bread and latke-like deruna are equally popular – Klopotenko said the next step is to raise the profile of the country’s cuisine as a whole, at home and abroad. .
To that end, her cookbook, “The Authentic Ukrainian Kitchen,” which puts a modern spin on traditional Ukrainian cooking, will be released in the US this fall.
“The war accelerated the growth of Ukrainian culture,” he said. “Russia wanted to kill the culture with the massive invasion, but it worked the other way.”
It’s a sentiment widely shared on the streets of the nation’s capital, where restaurants have revamped menus to replace Ukrainian dishes with Russian dishes. They were rewarded with full dining rooms despite rolling blackouts and frequent air raid warnings.
At Kiev’s bustling Volodymirsky market – a fringe of stalls offering beets, smoked seafood, caviar and mounds of the local, crisp cottage cheese – Tetyana Motorna has sold pickled fruit and vegetables for decades. She held back tears as she discussed the war and why Klopotenko’s work to achieve borsch was a national treasure for her country.
“Borsch is everything to Ukrainians,” she said. “Borsch is even more important because of the war. … With borsch, we prove that we are a separate nation. It affirms us as a nation.”
JM Hirsch is the editorial director of Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street and former food editor of The Associated Press. This reporting was a collaborative effort between AP and Milk Street. Hirsch can be followed @jm_hirsch.
For more AP stories about Ukraine, go to https://apnews.com/hub/ukraine.