UNESCO declares borscht cuisine an endangered Ukrainian heritage

The Ukrainian culture of cooking borscht, the hearty beet and cabbage soup, has been placed on UNESCO’s list of heritage traditions “in need of urgent safeguarding” due to the Russian invasion.

Often spelled borscht in English, the soup is widely eaten throughout Eastern Europe and is extremely common in Russia. But Ukraine considers it a national dish, or as UNESCO put it: “part of the fabric of Ukrainian society, cultural heritage, identity and tradition.”

“Victory in the Borscht War is ours!” Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko posted on Telegram, saying the soup was “officially” Ukrainian. “Remember and be sure: we will win this war as we did for borscht.”

The issue of borscht’s legacy has become political in recent years, as fighting has intensified since 2014 in parts of eastern Ukraine that Russia recognized as independent before invading the country in February . Russia has long claimed borscht as part of its own food tradition. The soup’s tangled origins may date back to the old Kievan Rus’, summarily nationalized in the Soviet Union.

Ukraine asked UNESCO to consider borsch as its “intangible cultural heritage” long before the war. Friday, because of the war, the cultural agency of the United Nations said for the first time it inscribed an element of cultural heritage to be safeguarded “in extreme urgency”.

“The armed conflict has threatened the viability of the element,” UNESCO said. “The displacement of people and bearers threatens the element, as people are unable not only to cook or grow local vegetables for borscht, but also to gather to practice the element.”

UNESCO noted, however, that the listing “does not imply exclusivity, nor ownership, of the heritage concerned, but “recognizes the social and cultural significance of borscht cuisine among Ukrainians.” in the past attributed the same dishes to several countries’ cultural heritage, such as kimchi and couscous.

The agency also noted how varied a dish of borscht can be: with fish or mushrooms, although most often meat in addition to the typical base of beets, cabbage, tomatoes and vegetables- roots, often served with sour cream, dill and bread or garlic rolls.

Past additions by UNESCO to the list of practices “in need of urgent safeguarding” included the whistled language of Turkey, the Seperu folk dance of Botswana and Mongolian calligraphy.

In 2016, Ukraine saw another cultural practice listed for safeguarding by UNESCO: Cossack songs from the central-southern region of Dnipropetrovsk, threatened by the aging population of bearers of this tradition.

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James C. Tibbs