Conflicts & War

Ukrainian chef who defeated Russia: “I’m a soldier of the kitchen”

By Luis Lidon, special correspondent

Kyiv, Jul 9 (EFE).- While to some, borscht is just soup, for Ukrainians it’s a religion and celebrity chef Yevhen Klopotenko is a veritable high priest whose advocacy is credited with persuading Unesco to add Ukrainian borscht cooking to its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, much to the annoyance of Russia.

“Victory in the borscht war is ours,” Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko said after the July 1 announcement from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

But Unesco would likely not have sided with Ukraine in the dispute with Russia over who created borscht if not for Klopotenko’s obsession with the dish, which he says has helped him explore his “Ukrainian identity and roots.”

Borscht is consumed throughout Eastern Europe and in formerly Soviet areas Asia. The soup was introduced to North America by Jewish and Mennonite immigrants from what was then the Russian Empire.

The 30-something Klopotenko is among a group of innovative young chefs who set out to revivify borscht and other traditional foods, but his ambitions go beyond the kitchen.

“For us borscht is something more than food, it’s a kind of religion,” he says at one of his restaurants in Kyiv. “I believe it’s even more than that. We have a relationship similar to the one Italians have with pasta.”

His campaign to assert the Ukrainian origin of the dish began in 2019 as a response to the common association of borscht with Russia, which he calls the result of “cultural appropriation” by Moscow.

Usually made by combining meat or bone stock with beetroot and other vegetables, borscht often includes meat or fish, but it is also prepared as a purely vegetarian dish.

The soup is almost invariably served with a dollop of sour cream.

The application for designation as Intangible Cultural Heritage was submitted to Unesco in 2019, but in April of this year, Kyiv asked the UN agency to activate a never-before-used emergency procedure, citing the danger posed to the tradition by the ongoing Russian military offensive in Ukraine.

That request for expedited consideration drew the ire of Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who described Ukraine’s bid to claim borscht as “xenophobia, extremism and Nazism.”

Much of the documentation supporting the candidacy was compiled by Klopotenko.

“I am a fighter on the cultural front,” the chef says. “There is a principal front where people die, and there is another, which is the cultural one, also important because in reality, the war began due to culture, because Russia doesn’t accept our identity nor our desire to belong to Europe.”

Notwithstanding its Ukrainian origin, borscht has long been a staple of Russian cooking, enjoyed by everyone from the tsars to Russia’s cosmonauts on the International Space Station.

Following Unesco’s recognition of Ukrainian borscht, Zakharova noted that several different countries have laid claim to hummus.

And the UN agency says that “inscription of an element of intangible cultural heritage on a list of the UNESCO 2003 Convention for the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage does not imply exclusivity, nor ownership, of the heritage concerned.”

The dossier supporting Ukraine’s candidacy included documents showing that borscht was sold in a market near as early as 1548.

Klopotenko, meanwhile, points to the existence of a “borscht index” that tracks the prices of ingredients to gauge the health of Ukraine’s economy.

“The armed conflict has threatened the viability of the element,” Unesco said in its approval of Ukraine’s application.

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