Soups – the first course – are represented in Russian cuisine like no other. No meal is complete without soup, considered filling and healthful, recommended to the elderly and those with a “dry countenance” as soup is thought to protect from dehydration. Soup is simply imperative and to skip the first course is unthinkable.
Soups are the face of Russian cuisine, they are plentiful and varied, and one of the most ancient dishes in the culinary tradition. In fact, the spoon appeared in Russia 400 years before the fork, due to the ubiquity of soup. However, the word “soup” didn’t enter the vocabulary until the time of Peter the Great. Before that, soups were called pohlebka (stew), ukha, yushka, or simply by their name. These names referred to first dishes made with noodles, grains and vegetables, served in ceramic or iron pots and eaten only with wooden spoons.
Borsch is the most famous and beloved of all Slavic soups – nay, all Slavic food, period! Though there are many variations throughout Eastern Europe, the exact birthplace of this culinary gem is unclear. It likely originated within the territory that is now Ukraine, in the ancient Kievan’ Rus. However, one visit to any Russian or Ukrainian forum will tell you that this is a contentious theory with no clear answer.
The etymology behind the name is unclear as well. One linguistic theory is that the word borsch can be broken down into two parts: bor and sh. The first part, bor, is related to the word buriy (бурый), a reddish-brown color, like the coat of a brown bear, called buriy medved in Russian. The beet, which gives the borsch its signature red color, is called buryak (буряк) in Ukrainian, also from the same root.
The second part, sh, comes from shti, another ancient Slavic soup (today called shi). This was a cabbage soup cooked in a meat broth – practically borsch without the beets. Thus bor (reddish) + shti (a cabbage soup) = red cabbage soup = borsch!
Another theory is that borsch is named after borshevik, hogweed, since originally borsch was the name of a soup made from hogweed, before it turned into the beet and cabbage soup we know today.
A note on the difference between borsch and borscht: this second spelling of the word was introduced into the English language via Slavic and Jewish immigrants speaking Yiddish. Going forward we will be using the transliterated spelling and not the translated name, refering to this soup as borsch, without the T.
Solyanka is a hearty soup made with cured meats, sausages, olives and pickles – essentially, whatever you have left over from your last get-together – and it is a traditional Russian dish. The word solyanka comes from the word “salt” (sol), though when this soup originated, in 17th century Ukraine, it was called selyanka, from the same root as selskoye, meaning rural or country. It was a dish eaten by the Christian peasant population and at that time, it was made with fish.
Soon after, tomatoes came on the scene, and to this day, it’s impossible to imagine this hearty, spicy, aromatic soup without them. Solyanka entered the repertoire of the fanciest restaurants in Russia and became their litmus test for quality. But while the higher-end version of the soup may have contained more high quality ingredients, solyanka remained a perfect food for the masses: versatile, made with any scraps or left overs available, rich, hearty and delicious.
Oksroshka is another versatile soup, an improvisation and not for perfectionists or the anxious. If an ingredient isn’t available, no problem! Anything within arm’s reach is good enough for okroshka. The only ingredient you can’t do without is kvas – the fermented bread drink is poured over all the chopped and mixed ingredients before serving. Unfortunately, the history of how this soup came to be has been lost. The only thing that’s certain is that it must have been around for at least a thousand years, based on the first writing found about kvas, in the year 989. Back then, it was likely made with turnips. Two turnips, an onion, a pinch of salt and some refreshingly sour kvas were all the ingredients needed. Over time, ingredients came and went, based on their availability in fields, cupboards and refrigerators all across Russia, making this another ideal dish of the people.
Rassol is the salty brine used for pickling and the inspiration for the name of this soup, whose defining ingredient is pickles. But strangely enough, when we first encounter it, a hundred years ago, it is referred to as a pie. Nikolai Gogol describes it in one of his diaries: “Rassolnik is a pie with chicken and buckwheat. To the filling you add rassol and chopped eggs.”
It turns out that what we think of as rassolnik today has been around since ancient times under a different name: kalye. It was prepared – by those who could afford such delicacies – with caviar, meat, chicken, kidneys and not only brine, but also lemon juice, and served with pies and pastries.
Shi is, without a doubt, one of Russia’s most beloved and iconic soups. This is obvious based on the proverbs alone: “Shi and kasha – this is our food”, “make shi to attract guests”, and “good people don’t walk away from shi”.
Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine Russian cuisine without shi, which has been around since the 9th century, when cabbage was brought to Russia from Byzantium. This liquid dish was mandatory in any family, along with rye bread. It was prepared with meat, fish, bacon or mushrooms. These components were interchangeable to some extent, meaning the soup was present all year round – in summer and winter, during fasting and feasting days. But the foundation of the dish was cabbage, either fresh or pickled. During lean years lacking a solid harvest, the soup was made from sauerkraut, so the pickling of cabbage when it was available was of particular importance.
The other ingredients varied according to the cook’s means. Poorer people who weren’t able to afford meat on a regular basis made do with ground lard. There were times when nothing was available but cabbage and onions, and the soup would be thickened with rye flour. On the other side of the spectrum, the gourmands and epicures cooked their shi with the finest cuts of meat and the rarest fish, mushrooms and root vegetables, and topped it with sour cream.
Regardless of the ingredients, everyone knew the most important thing, the thing that gave shi its essence, was to cook it and let it sit for a while in a Russian stove (more on this inextricable part of Russian home life later). The pervasive aroma of shi – “the shi spirit” – never left the home.
Here’s an interesting fact: in the 18th and 19th centuries, during Russia’s infamous winters, shi was frozen and toted along on long journeys as blocks of ice. During mealtimes, pieces of the shi-ice were broken off, thrown into a pot and melted. According to Vladimir Dal – one of Russia’s greatest lexicographers and folklore collectors, and the author of most expansive Russian dictionary – this is the most delicious way to eat shi.
This is a cold soup, made with croutons or pieces of dried bread in water, with salt, a bit of vegetable oil, kvas and sometimes, onions, scallions or other herbs. Occasionally milk was used instead of water to make a children’s version. Up until the 19th century, tyurya was an everyday dish, common among the poor because of how cheap and easy to make it was (no cooking required!). Since then its prevalence has died out, but the essence of tyurya is memorialized in the ironically-titled poem, Who is Happy in Russia?, by Nikolay Nekrasov, a poet, writer and critic from the 19th century:
— Eat your tyurya, Yasha,
Though there isn’t milk.
— But where is our cow?
— Led away, my love.
The lord, for her offspring,
Seized her, took her home!
Life’s so pleasant for the people,
Here in holy Russia