Ukrainian chef Ievgen Klopotenko never expected to find himself at the centre of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
But that’s just what happened when the 33-year-old pushed to have borscht — the traditional beetroot and cabbage dish — recognised as part of Ukraine’s historical heritage.
“I don’t really like to call it a war for borscht, but in fact that’s what it is,” Klopotenko, a graduate of the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, told AFP in his renowned Ukrainian restaurant in central Kiev.
The chef said he was fed up with how restaurants around the world — including those serving “so-called Ukrainian cuisine” — were referring to borscht as Russian soup.
So last month he brought a pot of borscht to Ukraine’s culture ministry to convince officials to submit an application to United Nations cultural body UNESCO to list borscht as an intangible part of the country’s cultural heritage.
The list already includes French gastronomy, Neapolitan pizza and Georgian wine.
The ministry agreed and said it was preparing the application to UNESCO before the March deadline, so it can be examined in December next year.
And suddenly Moscow bristled.
“Borscht is a national food of many countries, including Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Moldova and Lithuania,” Russia’s embassy in the United States said on Twitter.
– ‘Borscht unites us’ –
The Russian government soon followed on its own Twitter account, calling borscht “one of Russia’s most famous and beloved dishes and a symbol of traditional cuisine”.
Ukrainians claim that borscht was first mentioned in 1548 in the diary of a European traveller who tasted the soup in a market near Kiev. They say it arrived in Russia much later with Ukrainian settlers.
Tensions between Kiev and Moscow have flared in the decades following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.
After a pro-Western popular uprising in Kiev in 2014 followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support of separatists in the east, the confrontation has intensified.
For Klopotenko, the battle over borscht is really about Ukraine’s identity.
The country has been closely tied to Russia for most of its history.
Much of what is now Ukraine was part of the tsarist Russian empire and later the country became part of the Soviet Union.
“When I started studying Ukrainian food and cuisine, I realised that Ukrainian cuisine does not exist in Ukraine. It’s all Soviet,” Klopotenko said.
The Soviet Union “swallowed” Ukraine, “chewed it and spat it out… We don’t know who we are or what we are,” he added.
But there is one thing for Klopotenko that is quintessentially Ukrainian: the beetroot and cabbage soup.
“I realised that borscht is what unites us,” he said.
“We may be different, we eat different types of borscht cooked to different recipes, but it’s borscht.”
The application will not contain a recipe for borscht as “nobody knows the authentic one”, Klopotenko said.
– ‘More than just food’ –
“We will register something bigger. We will register the culture of borscht in Ukraine,” he said, adding that the soup “is much more important than just food”.
Olena Shcherban, a Ukrainian ethnologist and historian, said it is “absurd” to associate borscht with Russia.
“Borscht is the second dish that I ate after my mother’s milk. We wean the baby and then feed him with borscht,” Shcherban said as she stood over her stove cooking the soup.
The 40-year-old says that Ukrainians do not know their history well and have a “lack of pride” in their gastronomy, unlike the French or Italians.
She has tried to promote the dish through a festival in the village of Opishnya in central Ukraine that she has organised for seven years. And this month, she opened a museum dedicated to borscht.
“Borscht is art, borscht is language, borscht is culture, borscht is the history of my Ukraine,” Shcherban said.