This beet and red cabbage soup is a delicious belly warmer on Moscow's colder days, served with or without meat, potato, herbs (usually dill) and a dollop of Smetana, Russian sour cream. Accompanied with a piece of rye bread or garlic bread topped with melted cheese, this dish is hearty enough to serve as a meal, although it is usually eaten as a starter. A staple of Russia cuisine, it would be an offense to leave Moscow without trying this soup at least once, although its surprisingly tasty flavor will undoubtedly leave you wishing you had tried more local variations.
Borscht derives from an ancient soup originally cooked from pickled stems, leaves and umbels of common hogweed, a herbaceous plant growing in damp meadows, which lent the dish its Slavic name. With time, it evolved into a diverse array of tart soups, among which the beet-based red borscht has become the most popular. It is typically made by combining meat or bone stock with sautéed vegetables, which (as well as beetroots) usually include cabbage, carrots, onions, potatoes and tomatoes. Depending on the recipe, borscht may include meat or fish, or be purely vegetarian; it may be served either hot or cold; and it may range from a hearty one-pot meal to a clear broth or a smooth drink.
One of the favorite but unproved legends says the first-ever borshch was cooked by the Cossacks in 1637 during a two-month siege of the Azov fortress in Southern Russia, which was occupied by the Turkish army. Feeding four thousand Cossacks in a camp was problematic, so they collected anything edible they could find and threw it all together. Everyone liked this thick and nourishing mix of vegetables and meat, and came up with the name borshch, supposedly making an anagram of a famous fish soup called “shcherba”.