Is borscht Ukrainian or Russian?

“In Ukraine we were Jews. In America we are Russians. But in reality we are from Ukraine when it was part of the USSR.”

This is how Marina Yusim describes her pluralistic identity. As someone who is the product of multiple cultures (her mother’s family came from Odessa, a historic Ukrainian city on the Black Sea, and her father from northern Russia), her ideas of identity and allegiance fluctuate.

A week after Vladimir Putin launched a military invasion of Ukraine, Marina stood at the stove in her Studio City home, stirring a pot of grated carrots, turnips and chopped bell peppers. In another pot, pieces of potatoes and cabbage were floating in boiling water.

Marina, 65, prepared her mother’s recipe for borscht, a soup made with soft vegetables and meat when available. It’s served with a dollop of sour cream and a few slices of thick, dark bread rubbed with raw garlic. It’s a dish she ate often as a child growing up in Odessa.

“In the winter, my mom made it a lot because potatoes and cabbage were the only vegetables we had, and those are the main ingredients,” she said.

Marina is the mother of my best friend Jane. Last week, when my Instagram DMs were flooded with people asking where to get Ukrainian food in Los Angeles, she was my first call. Your Answer? It’s complicated.

A wooden spoon stirs shredded cabbage and beets in a large saucepan.

Marina Yusim, originally from Odessa, makes Ukrainian borscht at her home in Studio City.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Just as the identities of people in the former Soviet Union are intertwined, so are the foods of the region.

“What’s happening now is crazy,” Marina said. “Every Ukrainian family either has connections or relatives or friends among the Russian people and vice versa. The roots and connection between Russia and Ukraine [are] so deep and strong.”

When she grew up in Odessa, it was part of the Soviet Union. She remembers that in her town everyone spoke Russian, except at school, where you had to learn Ukrainian.

Being a Jew also had to deal with persistent Soviet anti-Semitism, and Marina and her husband Zimik, 67, applied to leave the country in 1977. Labeled as traitors, they filed a new emigration application every six months for a decade before finally being allowed to leave.

The couple left in 1988 with Marina’s parents, grandmother and two young children. The journey to the United States lasted five months with stops in Moscow, Vienna and Italy before landing in San Diego.


This connection of cultures plays out in the complexity of labeling certain foods as strictly Russian or Ukrainian. Both cultures prepare dishes like borscht in myriad ways.

Marina’s borscht is a striking crimson. The beets and carrots are simmered with tomato paste until almost melting with a slightly sour note. She adds a pinch of sugar to finish the soup.

It’s a dish you can find in most Russian restaurants, although the soup is believed to have originated some time before the 9 Renaissance at the University of Warwick in central England and author of the ‘Historian’s Cookbook’ column for History Today magazine.

“Back then, the main ingredient was hogweed (cow parsnip), which most of us would now consider a weed,” Lee wrote in an email to The Times. “This was chopped up, left to ferment in water for a few days, and then mixed into a soup with broth, eggs and cream or millet. As you can imagine, it probably tasted pretty spicy!”

Two pots full of boiling vegetables on a stove

Ukrainian borscht uses readily available cabbage and potatoes.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Several versions have been documented, including those made with kissel (a combination of fermented water with rolled oats, barley flour, or rye flour), lemon, sorrel, kvass (a fermented drink made from rye bread), cabbage, and sour cream. Lee said that red beet borscht was introduced in the late 17th century by people living in east-central Ukraine. Industrial expansion and railroads in Russia in the late 19th century helped spread its popularity throughout the Russian Empire.

“Because red borscht is both simple and nutritious, it has been hailed as the quintessential Soviet dish — so much so that it is said to have been Leonid Brezhnev’s favorite dish,” Lee wrote. “Over the centuries, it has spread far beyond its original home and taken many different forms. Today it is eaten all over the world, from Los Angeles to Vladivostok. Although many people like to claim it as their own, borscht has a complex history – and is perhaps best viewed as a symbol of shared food cultures.”

Marina’s mother preferred hot borscht with beets, but she also made a cold soup with beets and carrots, served with sour cream, chopped boiled egg and green onions.

“Considering that Ukrainians and Russians have been together for more than 300 years, they eat it in parts of Russia or Georgia or elsewhere [borscht] too,” she said. “The recipe could be different and you can see how many recipes are only in my family.”

Marina’s father, who started making borsch after the death of her mother, did not add tomato paste to his soup. Her neighbor in Studio City, also from Odessa, makes hers with V8 juice and ketchup.

“There are Russian restaurants in LA that serve borscht,” Marina said. “There are many common foods.”

Pelmeni (dumplings) are a typical Russian meal, she said, adding that vareniki, a typical Ukrainian dish, are basically larger dumplings usually filled with potatoes.

“It’s essentially the same dish, but each side has their own version of it,” she said.

aspic, a gelatin A dish made by boiling down animal fat, meat and bones is called aspic in Ukraine, but holodets in Russia.

There are even food terms and dishes specific to Odessa. “In my town we call it eggplant synie, the Ukrainian word for blue,” she said. “In Russia and other parts of Ukraine it is said Baklashan.”


Shortly after the military invasion, my TikTok feed was inundated with shopkeepers pulling bottles of vodka Russian Standard and Stolichnaya off the shelves and people emptying full bottles onto the street. Users called for a boycott of all Russian vodka.

But the Jusims hope boycotters will try to remember these ties between the Ukrainian and Russian people.

“I wouldn’t buy anything that could mean money to support the Russian troops or Putin,” Marina said. “But don’t boycott people. Unfortunately, people will suffer far more than anyone else.”

If you’re interested in making Marina’s borscht, here’s a quick rundown of her recipe.

Bring two liters of water to a boil. Add two peeled and chopped potatoes to the water. Then add a whole head of cabbage, cut into thin strips. If necessary, add more water to the pot to cover the vegetables. Cook the vegetables until soft.

In a separate pan, heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil. Add 2-3 medium beets, grated, along with 2 grated carrots and chopped bell peppers. Once soft, add a 6-ounce can of tomato paste and a few bay leaves. Stir and pour the mixture into the pot with the potatoes and cabbage. Let the mixture cook together for a few minutes. Add chopped parsley and a pinch of sugar. Serve with sour cream and dark bread rubbed with fresh garlic.

Marina suggests letting the borscht sit overnight and warm it up before enjoying the soup. Is borscht Ukrainian or Russian?

Russell Falcon

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