11 March, 2012

Moldovan Borsch

Ana performs the finishing touches.
Note:  This is a long post.  If you want, you can just skip to the Moldovan Borsch Recipe at the bottom.

Just as there are many different spellings of borsht, borscht, borshscht, borsch, bors, and Борщ, there are many more variations on how to make it.  There are Romanian, Moldovan, Russian, Ukrainian, and a billion other styles to make it, with many of these missing the key aspect or ingredient that another style claims is quintessential, lacking which makes the soup something other than 'borsch'.  

Indeed, I shouldn't title this page "Moldovan Borsch" because the method and ingredients vary by household, taste, and what happens to be in the cellar -- with this last factor being the most decisive.  My interest in adding this particular recipe to the stockpile came about when Ana (photographed) showed me a fermented grain culture referred to here aptly as 'bors' that is not the soup but an integral ingredient for 'Moldovan' bors.  I am obsessed with fermented foods, so I was naturally very inquisitive at the sheer number of things fermenting away in her cellar, and she kindly gave me a jar and explained how to ferment more.

But when I looked on the internets for a recipe using a fermented grain culture in the soup, I was shocked there were none.  The closest I came was a translated blurb of Elena Ivanovna Molokhovets' A Gift to Young Housewives (Подарок молодым хозяйкам), describing a recipe requiring several dead animals as well as a mysterious grain kvass (kvass being a popular fermented drink whose name is sometimes borrowed to describe almost any fermenting liquid).  I'm willing to bet two kilograms of bran that the grain kvass in question here is the liquid sludge Ana gifted me.  Because Molokhovets' recipe has been rendered wholly inaccessible to the modern cook by the sheer weight of time, I decided I would have Ana show me how she makes borsch.  As it turns out, her process might also be considered a bit inaccessible to the modern cook, but at least you needn't kill three animals with your bare hands.

------How I Learned to Make Borsch------
First, I will describe the process of making it the way Ana does (or at least, happened to make it today), and the process I went through to discover this.  If you would like a more kitchen-friendly recipe, I have done my best to provide one below and you may skip to that.

First, we cleaned and chopped the onions, carrots, beets, and potatoes.  She used tiny onions that she said were much more flavorful.  Say, something like 15 to 20 tiny onions, 4 carrots, 3 beet roots and 10-15 smallish potatoes.  The onions, carrots and beets were chopped into small pieces, but the potatoes left at chunks a few centimeters in length.  

We put the carrots, beets, and onions in a large pot on the stove into which was already thrown an amount of chicken fat.  Ana explained that any fat will do, even just vegetable oil, but for extra deliciousness you should use some kind of animal.  She happened to have killed a chicken yesterday and clarified its fat, so that's what we used.  You fry those for 10 to 15 minutes, until the carrots are soft, so the beets don't 'taste like dirt', she explained.  

While those were frying, we went to the cellar and grabbed some cabbage.  She pointed at a raw cabbage and taught me the Russian word for 'raw'.  Then she pointed at a giant vat of fermenting white liquid, taught me what I can only assume is the Russian word for 'sour', reached her hand deep into the liquid and removed several heads of dripping cabbage that had obviously been fermenting for months.  She kindly offered me a bite.  

She pointed at a jar of the previously-gifted fermenting grain liquid and said we would not be using it today, which disappointed me, as finding out how that was used was my very purpose in learning to make this with her.  She did explain, however, that if we were using raw cabbage, we would use that to make the soup sour, but as we were using cabbage that had been sitting in its own ferment for months, additional 'sour' was entirely unnecessary.

This was the point that she located 8 different jars of ghiveci from the shelf pictured in the linked post, 25 eggs, and other fermenting items for me to take home because she does not believe I eat well enough by myself.

We then added the potatoes and chopped fermented cabbage to the frying vegetables.  Conveniently, as though we were on the set of a 19th century cooking show, she pointed at a large pot of already-prepared chicken stock sitting on the stove (remember the chicken she killed yesterday?) and added all of it to the pot (probably around a couple litres).  Since the stock didn't cover the vegetables, she added some more water.  She said you could use just about any liquid, even just water, but chicken stock makes for a delicious soup.

We threw in with that 6 black peppercorns and a bay leaf, and boiled until the potatoes were done, and that's borsch.  Of course, we could add parsley and/or dill at the very end (after turning the heat off) if we wanted.  And obviously we needed to test the soup to see if we wanted more salt, but as there was salt in the cabbage ferment and the chicken stock, it was unclear how much, if any, we would need.  

As the soup boiled and boiled, Ana explained that if we were using raw cabbage, we would not add it right away with the potatoes.   Instead, we would wait about 10 minutes and add it later, and instead of only stock/water, we would add some of that liquid I am calling grain kvass to make it sour.  She also proffered at this moment that if you are червивый, you should drink the fermented cabbage water.  I clearly did not know what червивый meant.  She pointed at my dictionary, which said:
червивый  -   1. adj.  Worm-eaten.
While I was rather shocked that this was the condition she was describing, I was at the same time not shocked at all that Russians, in a single common word, can eloquently describe the condition of having been partially consumed by worms.  I understand that the acidity and probiotic nature of the fermented cabbage water would be a natural combatant against parasites.  Indeed, this is why fermented foods are so healthy.

I will now turn to the recipes needed to make natural, healthy, 'Moldovan' borsch.  As with any foods, if your fermentations smell or taste offensive, exhibit strange colors, grow hair, or otherwise indicate that the fermentation process has gone 'off', discard and start over.  This condition is obvious, however, and you needn't fear fermenting something for lack of recognition of spoiled food.

-----Grain Kvass-----
  • Bran (husk of wheat)
  • Boiling water (enough to cover brain and allow for a large amount of excess liquid)
  • Grain Kvass
Boil the water and add it to the bran.  Allow to cool to around 85 F.  Add grain kvass and keep around 85 degrees F until fermented (several days - smell it for done-ness).  Store in a cool place for eternity. 
Because grain kvass must be made using grain kvass, this presents the difficulty of obtaining the original grain kvass culture with which to inoculate your first batch.  I am experimenting with ways to develop this culture from scratch, but as yet, you may need to find someone with grain kvass.  The boiling procedure traditionally included seems to indicate the culture in this kvass is not necessarily that which lives naturally on the bran.  Let me know if you would like to visit Moldova to pick some up. :)

I will update this page with the results of my experiments, but I imagine you could approximate this fermentation by using a sourdough starter instead of the original grain culture. 

-----Fermented Cabbage-----
  • 10 or so Cabbage heads, sliced in half
  • Water (enough to cover the heads of cabbage and then some)
  • Salt
  1. Combine all ingredients in a large vat.
  2. Come up with a mechanism to prevent the cabbage heads from floating. Ana uses a plate placed upside down on the top of the cabbage head pile, upon which she places a large jar of pickles. The pickles provide the weight, and the plate provides a surface around which cabbage heads cannot sneak. 
  3. You must mix the heads around and change out some of the water every once in a while for the first month. After that, just leave them all in the white liquid and pull them out when you need them. 
  4. Take a swig when your guts have been consumed by worms. 
  5. Incorporating some liquid from previous batches will probably help the culture, however it is not necessary.  Nor is that convenient, as you probably won't have any left from last winter when you harvested and fermented your cabbages.
Okay, maybe this recipe isn't so "kitchen-friendly", but if you want authentic, you'll have to go get 10 heads of cabbage, a vat, and a place to leave something that might terrify guests.   Actually, you could probably do this on a much smaller scale, in a one or two gallon jar if you just want to ferment enough cabbage for a couple batches of soup.  Be brave and bold.  Courage may be as valid an ingredient as cabbage. 

-----'Moldovan' Borsch Recipe-----

I will try to make this as exact as possible, but if you read the section above, you will note there are absolutely no measurements.  This makes a large amount.  You can vary the amount of vegetables and pretty much any other ingredient as much as you want.  For example, many people think of borsch as being primarily made of beets.  If you like that idea, add more beets, and maybe less cabbage.  Do what you want; the words "optional" and "to taste" could effectively be written next to almost any of these ingredients.  It's about eating something good and healthful, not exacting the arbitrary details of some recipe.


  • 4 Carrots
  • 4 large Beets
  • 2-3 large Onions
  • 4-5 large Potatoes
  • 1-2 Heads cabbage (sour* or raw)
  • Grain kvass* to taste (if using raw cabbage)
  • Peppercorns to taste
  • Bay leaves to taste
  • Parsley/Dill (Optional)
  • Chicken lard (or other fat/oil)
  • Chicken stock (or other flavor liquid or water)
  1. Chop the carrots beets and onions into small pieces.
  2. Chop the potatoes into 2-3 centimeter (1 inch) chunks.
  3. Put whatever fat you've chosen in a pan - enough to cover the bottom and then some.  Add the carrots, onions, and beets.  Bring to high heat and then turn down to low and let them simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.  
  4. If you want to add meat, you would do so in step 3, and cook meat with vegetables.
  5. Add the potatoes.  If you are using sour cabbage, chop it into small pieces and add it with the potatoes.  Combine with other vegetables.
  6. Add stock to cover vegetables.  If you don't have enough stock, add water.
  7. If you are using raw cabbage, add it after the potatoes have cooked about 5 minutes, and then add grain kvass* to reach your desired sourness.  Ana likes it only slightly sour, so you needn't think it's only authentic if the sourness kicks you in the face.
  8. Bring to a boil and simmer over low heat for about 15-20 minutes, until the potatoes are soft.
  9. Turn heat off and add parsley and/or dill if you have it.
* Many Moldovans don't like fermenting their own ingredients.  These 'city-kids' purchase the sour ingredient at the store.  Also, many recipes online labeled as 'traditional' use vinegar as a sour ingredient.  I would argue that if you don't have something fermenting in a vat in your basement, it is probably not 'traditional', but if you would like to approximate the flavor, apple cider vinegar would work well and if you use still-living ACV, even better.

However, if you substitute vinegar, you are removing the healthiest component of borsch, and I will judge you I will fully appreciate your desire to simplify your cooking.  Though, taking a swig of the fermentations before adding them is extremely healthful for digestion, as it provides a good bacteria for your stomach and a naturally acidic environment in which the bad bacteria (and parasitic worms that consume you) cannot easily live. 

Incorporating real and fermented foods into our diets is very difficult, unless of course you happen to live in a rural, largely subsistence, society.  Do what you can and have time for.  The less processed flavor-chemicals you add to your dishes, the better off you will be.  If you really want something adventurous and healthy, get a few heads of cabbage ferment with courage.

Final final note:  I imagine most of my normal audience isn't going to actually ferment their grains or cabbage.  However, if you would like more information on local Moldovan fermentations, let me know in the comments or contact me - I'll write another post of what I've learned here where winter survival necessitates fermented foods.

1 comment:

  1. This is fucking brilliant. I bought a bottle of Bors in a local shop wondering what to do with it. I'm currently researching sour soups. Thanks.