It is no news that Eastern Europeans, among them Ukrainians, the Polish and Russians equally consider borscht their national dish.
The traditional Ukrainian recipe involves a hearty porc bouillon while the kosher cuisine has adopted chicken as the meat for the broth, which adds some sweetness to it. The Muscovites (Moscow region inhabitants characterized by a particular draw in their speech to lengthen and overemphasize their “ah”s) have been known to serve borscht with some almost sweet baked good, known as “vatrushka”, which sometimes has sweetened cottage cheese added to it, rather than dark rye bread that the peoples in the Southern regions of Russia prefer with a bowl of the red soup. And yes, potatoes are a major part of Russian cuisine nowadays, but even as a plant, potatoes didn’t get to Russia until a couple of centuries ago, so cabbage starred in the role of the main vegetable of borscht for the last 11 centuries.
The Russian Program at Willamette University has close ties with the TavricheskyState University in Simferopol’, Ukraine, and many students who either dine out at the local restaurants or participate in home stays while studying abroad will encounter the more Ukrainian version of the nutritious main course. What is the main difference, then? – you might ask, and here is a general answer that might not always be true depending on the way a particular household likes their borscht. The Russian “schi” is just like borscht but does not have the red beats added to it and will be characterized by a more orange, golden color that it gets from carrots and sometimes (that’s how my grandmother and mother make it) – two tablesppons of tomato paste heated in oil in a separate casserole. Chances are, that’s how I will be making it as well.
One way to look at borscht is that it is a national dish, but chances are, it is more of a transnational dish… with so many recipe variations, with many adaptations across borders and ethnicities. For some it is a comfort food that brings the whole family together and is a great excuse to have family and friends over because usually it is made in big casseroles to be enjoyed over a few days. For others it is a culinary feat that is also a great all-time favorite during lent, if it is made without meat.