KYIV, Ukraine — The chef said he didn't intend to start an Eastern European culinary clash.
But that’s what happened after 33-year-old Ievgen Klopotenko fired the equivalent of a gastronomic cannon shot: starting an effort to have borscht recognized as part of Ukraine’s cultural heritage by the United Nations’ cultural agency.
To the uninitiated, borscht is a humble, reddish beet soup, often served with a generous dollop of sour cream on top. But in its simplicity is a cultural significance that transcends borders.
A pot of borscht, simmering away on the stove during the long winter months, is a mainstay across many parts of Eastern Europe, and a cornerstone of the region’s concept of home and hearth.
Many countries claim the dish as central to their culinary tradition. However, what has previously been a debate on low boil now threatens to bubble over.
The disagreement over who is steward of borscht heritage has primarily been between Kyiv and Moscow — amplified since 2014 by Ukraine’s battle against Kremlin-supported militants in its East, a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people over six years.
Klopotenko said that his actions were inspired by the commonly held impression outside of Ukraine that borscht is a Russian dish. A tweet from the Russian Foreign Ministry last year called the soup one of the country’s “most famous and beloved dishes.”
“Russia, as usual, is changing the facts. They want to make borscht their own. But it’s not true,” Klopotenko said on the terrace of his Kyiv restaurant, which specializes in modern-day versions of traditional, and sometimes long-forgotten, Ukrainian dishes.
But he doesn’t fear any Russian repercussions for his UNESCO campaign. “They’re already at war with us,” he said. “What’s the worst they can do?”