CHICAGO – Ukraine’s profile is being given an international boost with a documentary about Kyiv-based chef Ievgen Klopotenko’s search for what constitutes the ideal borsch, the beetroot-based soup that embodies the nation’s identity in its culinary spirit.

California-based Netflix will stream “Borsch. The Secret Ingredient” on Mar. 30 in what is seen as a timely reminder to subscribers that Ukraine is a country fighting to preserve its identity and survival as a nation amid Russia’s genocidal war.  

The 80 minutes long film follows the intrepid chef’s 2018-2019 expedition, throughout Ukraine, to sample and explore regional variations of the recipe for the soothing, hearty soup that has been a salve for centuries in much of Eurasia and beyond.

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Ingredients are as diverse as the countryside beyond Kyiv, which has been the country’s capital for more than a millennium.

For example, a version known as black borsch, encountered in a corner of Ukraine near the Shatsk chain of lakes in the western region of Volyn, derives its name from the color resulting from the inclusion of wild boar’s blood in the recipe.

Along the southern banks of the Dnipro River, Klopotenko and the film crew found that sometimes fish is substituted for the more common protein ingredient of beef or poultry.

Some versions of borshch contain beans, while others don’t, a bone of contention between those who claim they prepare the truly authentic, ideal soup. Similarly debate rages on about whether or not the inclusion of potatoes, garnish and sour cream is necessary.

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In time Klopotenko and the film’s producer, Natalka Yakymovych, realized that they were learning more about the country and the diverse character of its people than it was about finding the best recipe for the beet soup.

“From a dish that every Ukrainian cooks, borsch has become for me a symbol of the nation’s unity,” the chef told the KyivPost. “We might have different lifestyles, personalities, preferences or views, but one thing unites us all, and that is our love for borsch.”

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He added that “it’s red borsch that has been coursing in the veins of Ukrainians for ages.”

The original concept of the film was changed, not only because of the realization of what borsch symbolized bur also the desire of donors and Netflix to set it in a wider cultural and social context.

Producer Yakymovych said they had teamed up for the film in 2018 as she was applying for a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Eventually, she received the equivalent of $149,000 from the Washington-based government agency with additional funding from Film.UA Group, a Kyiv-based movie studio.

“We tasted so many varieties, from the borsch favored by ethnic Hungarians in Zakarpattya to that prepared by the Jewish community in Odesa,” she told the Kyiv Post during an audio interview.

Near Mariupol the crew tasted the borsch made at a field kitchen in support of Ukrainian troops under training, which exemplified the lengths they had gone to in sampling the many varieties of the soup. Their journey took them to the most remote villages and metropolitan areas, to settings in which artists and athletes made their versions, and “to the glitziest of restaurants”.

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Yakymovych said that the project gradually progressed “from a culinary exploration to a social study into what constitutes the Ukrainian nation.” She said that the multitude of borsch varieties the expedition encountered “are different, just like all people but through this we are united through diversity.”

Since Putin’s all-out invasion of the country, the film has “gained more relevance, more importance,” she added.

At the end of 2019, footage started to air on Ukraine’s 1+1 television channel as a series of short episodes.  These were subsequently combined to make a short documentary which was screened on the same channel on Independence Day in that year.

Sadly the “COVID-19 pandemic” ruined Film.UA’s distribution plans to show the film in-country, as movie theaters were shuttered. Thus, many of Ukraine’s potential audience were unaware of  the culinary project.

Now that Netflix has bought the right to stream the 80-minute version of the movie, it “has sort of” pivoted toward the original, culinary accentuation of the concept, Yakymovych said.

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Still, for her, the “concept is about people and their values of which borsch is not only a part of but also the secret ingredient.”

Through Klopotenko’s inspiring effort, a UNESCO committee has declared the soup to be part of Ukraine’s “intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding.” 

He took much of the material he amassed during the culinary expedition and used it to apply for the United Nations’ status through the Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture, which supported and approved of his encyclopedic research.

Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko subsequently described UNESCO's declaration, as Ukraine’s "victory in the borsch war."

Klopotenko had spent much of the years in the period after Ukraine gained its independence, in 1991, abroad where he was exposed to different foods in Britain, Germany, Italy and the United States. He even worked in food preparation in a McDonald’s for a while r.

When he returned to his homeland he started making and selling homemade jams and described himself at that time as a “foodie who cooks at home,” in an October 2020 Ukrainian Weekly interview.

Klopotenko became a household name after winning the 2015 season of the ‘Master Chef’ competition, his prize for which was enrolment to the renowned Paris-based Le Cordon Bleu culinary school.

Upon returning to Kyiv, he started giving online cooking courses and jointly opened a downtown restaurant, “100 Years Back to the Past,” devoted to modernizing Ukrainian cuisine using fresh, locally-sourced ingredients.

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“Now, we have no problems with supply, mainly because we are a 100-percent Ukrainian restaurant and we have many small producers from all over Ukraine that provide us with their products,” Klopotenko said ,when asked how his eatery has adjusted to supply chain disruptions due to Russia’s ongoing war.

In October 2021, he released a 172-page English-language recipe book of Ukrainian dishes based on his research, some of which are centuries old and go beyond the Soviet-era standardized versions of holubtsi (stuffed cabbage rolls), varynyky (variously stuffed dumplings) and deruny (potato pancakes).

In previous interviews, Klopotenko said that the book of 70 recipes acts as a culinary history of Ukraine and contains several of the borsch recipes from his nationwide expedition.

He is also working on a project with the Ukrainian First Lady, Olena Zelenska, to improve public school cafeteria menus to make food healthier and tastier for children.

The war put a dent to their endeavor but is jumpstarting again: “Several weeks ago we had a strategic meeting with the First Lady and relevant ministries. Now we have a plan for the next 5 years to provide the best food for all Ukrainian children,” he added.

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Comments ( 1)

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Lila Dlaboha
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It's not "borscht"! It's "borshch"! What's with the "t" at the end?

Ivanna
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@Lila Dlaboha,

Ivanna
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@Ivanna,

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