When I first found out the theme for this issue, I wasn’t sure how to approach it. So rather than trying to come up with something about relationships, heartbreak, and all that sort of stuff, I decided to send in something a little different. I love food, and I love cooking. You’ll get to read about a food encounter that would have been completely different if not for things I learned about another culture through marriage.
My home town in Canada has a large contingent of residents descended from Eastern European settlers. Being the child of Belgian and Chinese first-generation immigrants, my encounters with Slavic culture were fairly limited when I was growing up. I remedied the situation by falling in love with a woman—I’ll refer to her a few times as Lia—and marrying into a family which traces its heritage to Russia, Poland, Ukraine, and Germany.
Cheap Like Borscht
But enough back story. Today’s topic is borscht. What’s borscht? It’s beet soup. It’s Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, and generally Eastern European in origin. At its most basic, it consists of beets and whatever else you have lying around in your root cellar, pantry, fridge, or whatever else it is that you store food in. Root vegetables figure prominently. Lia says that in her family it was pretty much beets—roots and greens—and dill, with a couple of other things thrown into the pot. Cabbage, potatoes, cheap cuts of the meat of a large mammal, carrots, turnips, onions, the occasional wayward stalk of flaccid celery extracted from the back of the crisper. I can’t imagine kohlrabi would be taboo. And in the appropriate season, tomatoes and zuchinni go into everything. Though that gets dangerously close to ratatouille territory. You get the idea. Don’t have any stock? Fine, use water. Company coming? Add more water. And maybe some more beets.
While writing this, I was picking up a really strong “don’t forget the dill” vibe from Lia, but that might be because, having been in Japan for 18 months we hadn’t had access to the fresh stuff since we’d left Canada, and had only found a supplier for dried about a month previous. Oh, the herb withdrawal stories I could tell. It sounds almost criminal. I can just see myself at the local upscale supermarket:
Sorry officer, I was just checking the basil leaves for bruising. I didn’t mean to tear through the six layers of plastic like a crazed junkie. I didn’t inhale. I acknowledge that I am powerless over fresh herbs and anything else that tickles the tastebuds—that my life has become unmanageable… It’s just that… that… 400 yen for ten small wilted leaves and a bundle of thick, woody stems… Is it the real thing? I could get it flown in from Bolivia for less. Aren’t you arresting the wrong person? Don’t you think you should investigate the guys who run this place? It’s a front. Soylent green is peeeeooopppllllle! It’s people, I tell you.
But the subject of access to culinary herbs in Japan is its own story. Borscht is not picky. As I mentioned, it’s just beets and stuff. In soup form. It’s a cheap, hearty, unassuming staple of the eastern European diet. No need to strain or puree it. You serve it directly from a big pot. Without croutons, unless you count huge misshapen homemade soda biscuits as croutons. Without garnish, unless you count a big dollop of sour cream as garnish. Note that borscht and sour cream, mixed in any ratio, will yield a shade of pink that would do Hello Kitty proud. Merchandising aside, borscht forgoes all of that fancy schmancy, ah, how you say? haute cuisine snobbery. Though if memory serves, I’ve seen a pureed borschtlike substance come out of a Kitchen Stadium food processor.
No matter what form they take—whole, diced, pureed, solid, liquified—beets, and therefore borscht, make your pee turn pink. As intense as the yellow you get when you take moderate doses of vitamin B, but in a longer wavelength. Boys, if you want to be the Picasso of the snowbank, alternate daily. No one I know has tested to see if combination therapy will give you orange, but I’m sure someone has tried it. Or will, after reading this. For the feminists in the audience, no, I don’t have anything against women nor am I ignoring you. It’s just that in this case the anatomical differences are significant. Plus there’s the issue of common sense. Really, how often have you seen a girl’s name in the snow bank next to a ladies’ outhouse? No matter how long the line.<
Our final morsel of borscht lore is the expression “cheap like borscht.” If you’re unfamiliar with it, then you’ve been hanging around in the wrong ethnic cafés. The expression means inexpensive but substantial.
Ok, now that you’ve made it past the lies, fabrications, and culinary heresy, I get to the part about Japan. In June 2004, we went to Kobe for a conference. After the conference we were exploring, and had found a shop with a devoted to international foods. It was a small place. So there we were, in an import food store in Kobe. The same Kobe of Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 fame. The same Kobe of Kobe beef fame. One of Japan’s larger and more ethnically diverse cities. Though the diversity scale goes down if you count yakuza—Japan’s answer to organized crime—as an ethnic group, given that Kobe has Japan’s largest per-capita yakuza population. The import food store was in a large, busy shopping district. As opposed to the shops that hide in disused corners of the seedier parts of town. Perhaps the shop’s location had some bearing on the prices there. High rent, perhaps? Large “protection” fees from the local mob?
Whatever the cause, there is simply no excuse for the borscht atrocity we found there. Cans of borscht for 1470 yen each. A can of borscht for 1470 yen? I repeat: 1470 yen? for borscht?! in a can??!! At some point in recent currency exchange history, that was $16.54 (Canadian) or $13.55 (US). For 850 grams. The Japanese characters on the label consisted of a transliteration of “borscht,” followed by “serves 4.” Making the unscientific assumption that 1 gram equals 1 millilitre, and rounding up, a single serving works out to 213ml. Four bucks for less than a cup per person? Oi yoi yoi. I’ve gotta say though, that the real crime isn’t the price. It’s that anyone would consider a mere 213ml of borscht to be anywhere near a single serving. And at that price it better come with foie gras, truffles, caviar, and its own chef.
Allez cuisine! xxx