“It is not a SOUP! It is borscht. In a soup, you put the spoon in the middle,” the Odessan imitated placing a spoon upright in the middle of a bowl, “and what happens? What happens?! It falls over!” He imitated the spoon falling over while his rising tone and widening eyes conveyed his disbelief in having borscht compared to a soup.
“In борщ, you put the spoon in the middle of the bowl and nothing happens. It stands straight. THAT is borscht.” In Odessa, Ukraine, calling borscht a soup leads to a lesson. The more I travel in Ukraine, the more I learn about the intricacies of борщ. For example, in Kyiv, borscht can be watery, like soup. In Poltava, borscht can be vegetarian with protein provided by fluffy white beans.
In Chisinau, Moldova, borscht is made with an herb specific to Chisinau giving it an unexpectedly strong taste. In Tallinn, Estonia, borš is a little oily. A common food in post Soviet countries, borscht has become a comfort food for me. I order it everywhere. However, Ukraine is still my favorite place for borscht.
This has something to do with how Ukrainians serve borscht. My favorite comes in a steaming hot brown ceramic bowl with smetana (sour cream), salo (pork fat), and pampushki on the side. I add the smetana and avoid the salo. The pampushki, when done right (see my favorite restaurant here) is fully coated in a butter garlic sauce. The fluffy thin bread melts in your mouth after a dunk in the borscht and you will have enough vitamins and garlic to send you off to save the world from vampires.