Late at night on a train in Siberia, I had a run-in with the Russian mob over a bowl of borscht.
I should have listened to the little voice in my gut when I entered the dining car at the back of the train. Something was wrong. This wasn't like the other dining cars scattered along the half-mile iron serpent winding its way north from Ulan Bator, Mongolia, to Irkutsk, Siberia. The back half of this dining car was stacked high with boxes. Two heavily made-up babes played poker and smoked cigarettes at a table while electronic trance music thumped relentlessly, masking the pounding of the train.
Intrigued yet nervous, I sat down and ordered borscht. A large woman smiled sympathetically as she took my order. I never saw her again. A stone-faced man brought a bowl of faintly purple water, in which pieces of sliced hot dog floated among stray shards of cabbage. While it was easily the lamest excuse for borscht ever, the sight of the chef standing in the galley door fondling his machete-sized knife inspired enough appetite for me to finish my bowl. Then came the bill: $50.
I protested, using gestures and pointing at the menu to communicate the accounting error; the borscht was advertised at $3 a bowl. The server kept his arms folded, and then employed gestures of his own, picking up various pieces of tableware to explain that I also had to pay for the use of the silverware, plates, salt, pepper and napkins. After further protest on my part, he made another gesture, moving his hand across his thigh in a slicing motion.
Borscht wears the "peasant food" banner with dignity and grace, proof that a culinary masterpiece can be made from the most humble ingredients.
"Mafia," he said.
The babes kept playing poker. The chef double-checked the sharpness of his knife in the galley door. I paid and got out of there.
Later that night, in a train station on some windswept plain, the dining car at the end of the train was removed.
While that overpriced meal certainly left a bad taste in my mouth, I suppose it it did qualify as borscht—if only because borscht is such a general term for a wide category of Eastern European soups. The name comes from the Russian borshch, which means “cow parsnip.” (The plant is widely distributed in the U.S. as well, where it goes by the common name hogweed.) While often considered to be synonymous with "beet soup," borscht can be made with cabbage, tomato or sorrel, to name just a few of the common main ingredients. In The Gold Cook Book, Chef Louis P. De Gouy describes a Polish borscht (bortsch Polonaise) made from (among other things) duck, leeks, beets, egg whites and crushed egg shells.
Borscht is oftentimes served with a dollop of sour cream—or a dollop of mayo if you're in Russia, where mayo has achieved a standing on par with vodka. When a container of either is opened for the first time, the cap is thrown away.
Whatever it's made of or served with, at the end of the day, borscht remains cold-weather comfort food. Like ratatouille, polenta, sausage and coq au vin, borscht wears the "peasant food" banner with dignity and grace, proof that a culinary masterpiece can be made from the most humble ingredients.
Even though my dear mother makes a fantastic cabbage borscht, my favorite borscht is a variation I've developed based on the beet borscht recipe in The Joy of Cooking.