March 01, 2004

The Soup of Life

Most Americans consider borshch the quintessential Russian soup, but the truth is that shchi – cabbage soup – holds that honor. So beloved is shchi, it even has its own affectionate names, shchets and shchechki. The word shchi comes from the Old Russian seto, meaning “sustenance” or “subsistence,” and numerous sayings attest to its importance in Russian life – what could be more telling than Shchi da kasha, pishcha nasha (or sometimes mat’ nasha, or zhizn’ nasha)? It translates as: “Cabbage soup and kasha, that’s our food/mother/life.” 

Shchi was originally a wintertime staple, made from soured cabbage that had been put up in the fall – hence its proper name, kisliye shchi (sour cabbage soup). But Russians like cabbage soup so much that it eventually became a summertime staple as well, using fresh cabbage instead of fermented. Americans might consider the fresh-cabbage version more labor-intensive – all that shredding! – but the Russians call this summertime version leniviye or “lazy” shchi, because the cabbage does not have to be put up first. There is also zelyoniye or green shchi, which is made in the springtime from sorrel, or sometimes young nettle leaves. 

Shchi is so important to the Russian consciousness that it even has its own feast days. April 1 is celebrated as Mariya Pustiye Shchi (Mary ‘Empty Shchi’), a time when the winter stores of cabbage are nearly depleted and people long for more. It’s not until May 3, Mavry Zelyoniye Shchi (Molly ‘Green Shchi’) that the first fresh cabbage of the year can be planted.

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