Ukrainian Borsht for Sultana

Nobody seems to know where the word borscht came from. The best guess is that it is a combination of schti (Russian cabbage soup) and buryak (beetroot in Ukrainian).  It is first mentioned in the legend about the two-month siege of the Ukrainian fortress Rohatyn by the Crimean offshoot of the Turkish army in the beginning of the sixteenth century. Trying to feed several hundreds of hungry people, including women and children, the Cossacks, defenders of the fortress, collected every edible vegetable (root vegetables, as it was winter) and put them into meat broth. When they ran out of meat, they went vegan and kept cooking only vegetables: carrots, potatoes, beets, cabbage, and beans. It was warm and filling, and it sustained the population for two months. Unfortunately, the defense was broken, Rohatyn was taken, and many captives were transported to a slave market in Constantinople.


Among those captives was a beautiful fifteen-year old redhead Anastasia Lisowsky, lovingly called Nastia. Together with some other girls, she was selected for the harem of the future Sultan Suleiman who later gained worldwide fame as Suleiman the Magnificent, or the Lawgiver. There, she was at first called simply Roxelana, or Ruslana, which means Ukrainian. It was Suleiman himself who gave her a name Hurrem – “the joyful one.” She became his favorite consort and soon gave him a son, Mehmed. But she wasn’t brought up to be a concubine, and she was too ambitious to be one of many in a harem. She had boundless energy and aspired to be involved in social projects.  The Sultan showered her with riches, and she wanted to use her wealth for public welfare. Her first project was a hospital for women near the place that still held horrific memories – the old slave market.

This is Roxelana memorial in Rohatyn.

However, there was an obstacle. Only free citizens were allowed to sponsor public projects, and she was still technically a slave. Beloved, wealthy, the mother of a prince, but a slave! She appealed to the Sultan. Suleiman was so impressed by her desire to improve the lives of his subjects that he immediately granted her freedom. But the next time he came to her room, she wouldn’t let him in! “You are the Sultan of Muslims, I am a free woman, we are not married, so I can’t let you into my bed.” He ranted and raved, but she was right, and the unthinkable happened: they were married in a magnificent formal ceremony, violating a two-hundred-year tradition forbidding a sultan to marry a concubine and for the first time in history elevating a former slave to a status of an empress, Hazeki Sultan.

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This is her portrait at the age of about 48 by Titian, titled La Sultana Rossa.

Hurrem was influential in the state affairs, which was unprecedented in those times, but she never abandoned her interest in women’s social welfare. Schools, hospitals, and soup kitchens for the poor and needy earned her undying respect and love of the population. Under his pen name, Muhibbi, Suleiman composed many poems to his beloved.

Throne of my lonely niche, my wealth, my love, my moonlight.
My most sincere friend, my confidant, my very existence, my Sultan, my one and only love.
The most beautiful among the beautiful…
My springtime, my merry faced love, my daytime, my sweetheart, laughing leaf…
My plants, my sweet, my rose, the one only who does not distress me in this world…
My Istanbul, my Caraman, the earth of my Anatolia
My Badakhshan, my Baghdad and Khorasan
My woman of the beautiful hair, my love of the slanted brow, my love of eyes full of mischief…
I’ll sing your praises always
I, lover of the tormented heart, Muhibbi of the eyes full of tears, I am happy.

In defiance of yet another tradition, Hurem was allowed to have more than one child. And every time she became pregnant, she craved the comfort food of her motherland, the soup of the siege, the borscht. This might be a legend, since there are records of Hurem requesting quail and rahat lokum (“Turkish delight”) when she was with child, but no records of borscht being cooked in the palace kitchen. Or perhaps the Turkish cooks simply didn’t know how to make it? But we do!

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First, we boil carrots and beets. I make a pareve borscht, without meat, but you can do it the Cossack way and throw your veggies into beef stock. We boil them for quite a while, until they are very soft.

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Meanwhile, we prepare the rest of the vegetables: shred cabbage, peel and cut potatoes, and get the beans ready.  You can use any beans you have at hand. I prefer a combination of red beans and sweet peas.  Once your carrots and beets are cooked, fish them out of the pot and throw the rest of the veggies in. Let carrots and beets cool off while the other veggies are cooking.

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Grate your cooked carrots and beets (I use a food processor) and mix them with tomato sauce. I make my own tomato sauce by simply buying overripe tomatoes, whenever I come across them, pulverizing them in a blender and simmering until the sauce thickens.Then I freeze it for further use. At this point, you can also add fresh parsley, together with chopped stems. Mix it all up, add it to the pot, and stir.

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Seasoning time: pareve soup mix, salt and pepper, and the all-important combination of lemon juice and sweetener (I use xylitol). It is the latter that makes the borscht!

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Bring it to boil one more time, stir again, and your borscht is ready. We had it often in winter time, even though in Odessa there wasn’t a real winter. But we always made it for Chanukkah, perhaps because of its combination of sweet and sour flavors, or maybe because it looks so festive. To me, it is comfort food, the same as it was for Hurrem Sultan. She lived an extraordinary life and ended it, surrounded by her adoring husband, children and grandchildren.

I don’t think she ever got her borscht, though, and anyway, this is only a legend, one of many about this incredible Ukrainian woman who had a Jewish secretary and exchanged letters with Christian kings.


Serve your borscht with sour cream (Tofutti for me) and some raw garlic, as the tradition demands, and delight in the richness and beauty of this simple “siege soup.”


  • 1 large or 2 medium whole carrots, peeled
  • 1 large or 2 medium whole beet roots, peeledarrots
  • 1 large potato, peeled and cubed
  • 1/3 head cabbage, shredded
  • 1 cup precooked red beans (frozen or canned could be used)
  • 1 cup precooked sweet peas
  • 1/2 cup tomato sauce
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley with stems
  • 1 heaping tablespoon soup powder
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon xylitol or sweetener of your choice
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  • Boil carrots and beets in 2 quarts of water until very soft, about 30 minutes. Remove, let cool.
  • Place shredded cabbage, cubed potato, red beans, and sweet peas into the pot, bring to boil, reduce to simmering.
  • Grate boiled carrots and beets, add tomato sauce and parsley, mix well. Add to the pot. Stir.
  • Add lemon juice and sweetener, season with salt and pepper. Bring to boil, stir, and turn off.
  • Serve with sour cream or substitute and raw garlic cloves on the side.

Happy Chanukkah – enjoy!





39 Comments Add yours

  1. randyjw says:

    What a gorgeous-looking borscht!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! I thought you were going to say “a gorgeous-looking Sultana”! She really was something special, wasn’t she?


      1. randyjw says:

        Totally captivated the Sultan! Why are wrinkly raisins called sultanas? (I know; cuz it’s a Turkish name), right?)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I guess so, but I’ll ask Chef Ronit – she is Turkish Jewish, she should know.


      3. randyjw says:

        I think it is, and also because they were a delicacy for Sultans.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Love the story 🙂 fascinating and great recipe too- I love borscht!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. One of my favorite soups!
    As for why raisins are called sultanas – I’m guessing it was because most of this type came from Turkey, though I doubt the Turks gave it the name.
    By the way, my family roots are Turkish/Greek/Italian on my mother’s side, and Macedonian/Moroccan on my father’s side, while he was already born in Jerusalem… What a mix! 😀

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Variety is exciting, especially genetic and cultural variety. Do you know all those languages, in addition to English and Hebrew?


      1. Unfortunately not. Ladino was the language they all spoke, so communication was easier even when coming from different countries. I do understand Ladino but was too young when my grandparents died to have a real knowledge of it, and at home we already spoke Hebrew.
        I did learn French at the university, but can’t say I’m remotely fluent in it. It’s just too easy to use English everywhere these days… 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, English has become an international language. And I don’t think I thanked you for your kind comment on my Borscht post – I apologize!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. No problem at all! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    2. randyjw says:

      Thanks always, Ronit. What an incredible background heritage, as well.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. As a curious cat, I had to research, and Ronit is absolutely right. I also found out that kishmish I used to get in Georgia (a country, not a state) is the same as sultanas. Go figure!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you! I do indeed feel very lucky to have such diverse background. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  4. randyjw says:

    Thanks for posing the question to Ronit, Dolly!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t it – she saw my answer to your comment. She is great, though, isn’t she?


      1. randyjw says:

        Yes, she’s wonderful.

        This makes enough rhyming words to get a poem out of it, if I can rack my brain into it.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. What a beautiful soup Dolly.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, my bortsch is way different! Not my favorite food (not a soup lover here), but I know many people that love it, so I usually make it at least once a winter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Everybody makes it differently, there is no set recipe. As long as beets and cabbage are in the pot, call it borscht!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Joëlle says:

    This is the best bortsch recipe I have ever come across! I will be making it next week and thinking of you.
    Your story about this exceptional woman reminded me of a French saying “A woman’s will is God’s will!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, dear Joelle! Can write this saying in French for me? I’ll ask my granddaughter to teach me to pronounce it correctly. Let me know how the borscht comes out – enjoy!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Joëlle says:

        “Ce que femme veut, Dieu le veut!” 😊

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Merci beaucoup! Now I will tease my husband with it!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. lghiggins says:

    Delightful story of a strong woman! I have never had borscht, but I should try it as I love beets and soup.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you your kind words! Happy New Year!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I don’t like this dish but the story was great 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, I am glad you liked the story!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. dfolstad58 says:

    Reblogged this on Life and Random Thinking and commented:
    In addition to the memories my Baba gave me and the lessons she taught me about standing up for myself, and having good manners; Baba also enjoyed cooking for her family.
    This is a wonderful blog I happened across today with a recipe for the soup that reminds me of my Baba, and also the writer provides fascinating history I had never heard before.
    If it is cold where you are, or if you need some wholesome delicious soup to warm your body and soul, knitting them together with wholesome soup, then enjoy this blog, and make some soup.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a wonderful surprise! Thank you so much for reblogging my post and for your warm introduction to your readers. I have a feeling your Baba was a lot like mine. I am so glad you stopped by my blog, and now I’ve discoved yours!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Joëlle says:

    Hi Dolly! I made your borscht this evening, and I have to share my husband’s words with you : “This is good, you can make it again any time!” He usually doesn’t care for cooked carrot, but here, being grated after it was cooked, made a big difference. Thank you for sharing this recipe!
    P-S: interesting word, “borscht”, a little hard to pronounce…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Joelle, for finding time to tell me! Your comment made my day!
      As to pronunciation, I still have to make an effort to pronounce “thirteen thirty three” correctly because the sound “th” does not exist in any of the languages I speak. Don’t worry about it!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Wow, this looks so tasty and healthy!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much – glad you like it!


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