The Great Šaltibarščiai Debate


Many of us who grew up in a Lithuanian family or had a Lithuanian grandmother know šaltibarščiai as a summer soup – “cold beet soup“ or “cold borscht” just doesn‘t deliver the same message. As with many Eastern European foods, its origin as well as some of its ingredients are hotly debated. Just look online, and you will see Latvians, Russians and Poles contending for credit and variations in the recipe. But is a comparative alchemical analysis of šaltibarščiai entirely necessary?

Let us agree that there are three elements that are not debatable. Beets. Cucumber. Dill. What a delicious combination to start with! Most recipes show chopped boiled egg as an ingredient. The base of the soup is most often buttermilk, but kefir, “huslanka“, yogurt are also used, with variations depending on what you have in the fridge. Discussions also spiral around the use of chives, green onions (scallions), something called “onion leaves“ (probably a bad translation).

Although the recipe is quite simple, many decisions must be made. Use canned beets or “live” ones? Grate the beets and cucumbers or dice them? (I like to dice them, the grated beets always trail down my chin.) The eggs are usually chopped (photos show boiled egg halves lying attractively on top of the soup). Or do you puree the whole thing? Some recipes suggest horseradish to spice it up (that was the Latvians). Salt and pepper. A generous pinch of sugar to enhance the sweetness of the beets. My mother definitely used to add a squirt of lemon juice, although I never adopted this practice, and never missed it. However, my mother-in-law, who was the second best cook I ever knew, shared her secret with me. You will have to read to the end of the recipe to find it. Here is my recipe:

– 3 medium-large beets, boiled, peeled and diced

– 1 English cucumber, diced

– 2 hard-boiled eggs, finely diced

– 1 large handful of chopped fresh dill

– 1 750 g container of “huslanka“, or kefir or

– 1 litre buttermilk

– Salt and pepper to taste, a generous pinch of sugar

– 1 dash to 1 tsp of balsamic vinegar

Sometimes I feel ambitious and boil a large pot of beets, dice or grate them all and freeze in sandwich-bag portions. Then they are available winter and summer for wonderful beet soup. There are those who will tell you to let the soup sit in the fridge all day. I can never wait that long. Usually half an hour, tops, after adding about a dozen ice cubes. As in Lithuania, šaltibarščiai absolutely must be served with boiled potatoes, ideally little unpeeled new ones tossed with bacon bits and more dill. Or chives. Or both.