Ukraine on Friday declared itself a victor in the Borscht war against Russia — a war that, inexplicably, unpardonably, has gone largely unnoticed by the international community — that the country has for years fiercely committed itself to waging in order to protect the gastronomic integrity of its national cuisine.
For Ukrainians, it is well and good for Russian chefs and stay-at-home moms — as well as for those in countries like Belarus, Poland and Romania, where the dish is popular — to cook, serve and enjoy Borscht, a hearty beetroot soup treasured as the crown of their country’s culinary heritage, but for Moscow to call it, as the foreign ministry there recently dared call it, “one of Russia’s traditional national dishes” and, moreover, tamper with its original recipe, well, that amounts to sufficient casus belli.
The war ended on Friday when Unesco declared that Ukraine’s own unique version of the soup was on its list of “intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safekeeping”, and that the dish is “considered part of the fabric of Ukranian society, cultural heritage, identity and tradition”.
With Unesco’s ruling, the food war between Russia and Ukraine over who owns Borscht as part of their national culinary arts is now over. Ukraine won and Ukrainians were jubilant.
Ukraine’s Culture Minister Oleksandr Tcatchenko, reacted triumphantly. “Victory in the Borscht war is ours”, he boasted on Telegram. “Be sure that in both the war for Borscht and this war, we will win”.
To be exact, the Borscht war — which, mercifully, had claimed no lives — broke out on October 17, 1994, when Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, before arriving in Russia on an official three-day visit — the first by a British monarch to Russia — said she wished to sample “Russian food”.
Well, her Russian hosts not only served her and Prince Philip, who had accompanied her on the trip, Borscht, presenting it as a “classic national dish”, but inexcusably tampered with the original Ukranian recipe. The Kremlin chef, it appears, in his seeming effort to accommodate the guests’ Anglo bland taste, added creme fraiche to the ingredients, giving the soup a sickly pink colour, when it should have been a sumptuous scarlet red.
Ukrainians, who have consistently considered Borscht theirs — and theirs only — as a national dish, a part of their identity, self-image and cultural heritage, a dish whose ingredients must remain inviolate, were outraged and soon up in arms (of the figurative variety), crying out, “Nyet, nyet!”
With Unesco’s ruling on Friday, the food war between Russia and Ukraine over who owns Borscht as part of their national culinary arts is now over. Ukraine won and Ukrainians were jubilant.
Unesco takes its member states’ national cuisines seriously — and well it might. Consider in this regard the position it took in 2017 on, eh, well, pizza-slinging.
When in December that year the noble Neapolitan tradition of pizza-slinging — the art of extravagantly flipping pizza dough over your head and then, after topping it with sauce, throwing it in a wood-fired oven, a skill handed from generation to generation in Naples — received Unesco heritage status after it was added to the cultural body’s “intangible heritage list”, Italians everywhere, at home and in the diaspora, especially in New York and Chicago where Italian-American pizza-slingers are legends, the decision was momentous.
Hummus war rages on
The Borscht war may be over but the Hummus war, alas, rages on between Palestinians and Israelis, with the former bristling at the sight of the latter claiming the dish as their own.
Kalla thomma kalla, Palestinians howl in protest. Hummus is a Palestinian dish whose gastronomic integrity is uniquely Palestinian, anchored in Palestinian history, culture and culinary tradition. Proof? The flavours you taste in their version of the dish, when cooked by a Palestinian, are subtle and intricate whereas they are, when the dish is cooked by an Israeli, aggressively spicy and harsh. All of which renders it, maskhara, or fake Hummus.
As of this writing, Unesco has not intervened to settle the Hummus war.
National dishes, cheeses, wines, cheeses and breads are the pride of nations.
Consider how in August 2019 then President Donald Trump, who had earlier run for election on an America First platform, dissed his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, when he told him: “I’ve always liked American wine more than French wine”. American wine better than French wine? Oh, l’horreur, l’horreur!
A columnist for Liberation, the irreverent daily in France founded in 1973 by Jean Paul Sartre and known engagingly by its lefty readers simply as Libe, wrote: “Monsieur Trump, choke on your burger, fries and Coke!”
Worse for l’honneur culinaire francais was the time in 2015 when the country performed poorly in the World’s 50 Best Restaurateurs contest — the time when French chefs’ kitchen knives came out.
I say this: Mess with a nation’s cuisine at your peril.
In 2017, Mexican foodies in New York felt their nation’s honour was violated when the New York Times shared with its readers a recipe for green guacamole which had originally been created by a Latin American restaurateur in Manhattan. Madre Mia! Have the folks at the newspaper of record no sense of decency?
Food war between Beijing and Seoul
And let’s not, in the name of mercy, get into the food war between Beijing and Seoul over whether Chinese pao-tsai, a popular dish from the province of Sichuan, was actually a rip-off from Kimchi, South Korea’s infamously stinky cabbage dish. Too inscrutable for this columnist to fathom.
Finally, as we look back, now in the cold light of hindsight, on the Russia-Ukraine food war, it appears the conflict was unnecessary from the outset: When Russians cooked Borscht, they left out the bay leaves, the sugar and the dill, and, worse, used water instead of broth — all of which doomed their soup as fake from the get-go.
Lesson to Israelis: Until you learn that the proof of the chickpea is in the heating, not the eating, of it, your chances of winning the Hummus war are as equally doomed — and from the get-go too.
— Fawaz Turki is a noted thinker, academic and author based in Washington DC. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile