With the recipes and cuisines covered here on Arousing Appetites, there’s a relatively prevailing trend: most of the traditional dishes have histories that can be traced back centuries… if not millennia.
Consider this light saltibarsciai beet soup and the overall Lithuanian cuisine, however, to be an exception to the rule. A common recipient of geopolitical “disturbances,” the lifetime of the current Lithuanian cuisine might very well span back only two centuries.
Even then, the cuisine has certainly produced some truly delicious offerings, saltibarsciai included.
(NOTE: Want to save this recipe for later? You can take home a downloadable PDF version of this recipe by clicking here.)
Saltibarsciai and the Lithuanian Cuisine
In order to understand saltibarsciai (pronounced shult-ay-bursh-chay), it’s helpful to understand the context under which the contemporary Lithuanian cuisine was developed.
Also, before we begin our little history lesson, it’s important to note that there are technically four very distinct regional cuisines to Lithuania. There’s the cuisine of Aukštaitija (flour and freshwater fish), Žemaitija (vegetables and dairy meals), Suvalkija (smoked meats), and Dzūkija (cakes). While it’s not really in the scope of this post to explore all four of these different cuisines, they do have very striking differences from one another.
Nevertheless, what happened to Lithuania as a whole affected all its relative cuisines.
Lithuania’s Evolution As a Nation
While the contemporary state of Lithuania has only been in existence since the fall of the Soviet Union, the lands that comprised its modern day borders were once part of the strongest independent empires throughout the Medieval Era.
Particularly because of its proximity to the Baltic Sea, the lands of Lithuania have been inhabited for a very long time, but its true rise to prominence and geopolitical relevance came in the 13th century. Under the leadership of King Mindaugas, key Baltic tribes consolidated to create the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL). Over the course of the next few centuries, the GDL grew – with the help of very strategic alliances and treaties – to become a formidable European power. At its peak in the 16th century, the GDL was even the largest and most powerful nation in all of Europe, with lands stretching from the Baltic all the way to the Black Seas.
By the end of the 18th century, the GDL began to decline following a series of heavily taxing wars and deadly plague outbreaks. By 1795, the lands and sovereignty of the former GDL had been partitioned out to outside powers, the greatest beneficiary of whom was Russia.
Unfortunately, this period under Russian control proved to be an unhappy and fairly repressive one. For the next ~120 years, the former GDL was subjected to various “Russification” campaigns over several generations of Tsars. As a consequence of these campaigns and various other changes within the empire, the former GDL nobility began to lose economic power and political influence.
It didn’t help that, around the 1880s, a massive agricultural crisis further undermined the gravitas of the nobility, and an empowered peasantry gained more influence in the land’s overall socioeconomic landscape.
Eventually, Lithuania did regain its independence in the early 20th century, but it proved to be fairly short lived. During the course of World War II, Lithuania again was occupied by both the Germans and ultimately the Soviets. Following another period of Soviet repression, Lithuania finally became independent during the 1990s when the Soviet collapsed.
The Effect on Lithuanian Cuisine
During the time of the GDL, the legacy of its cuisine is directly attributable to the nobility. In addition to making use of locally grown ingredients like barley, potatoes, rye, beets and the like, the GDL nobility also enjoyed an early form of “haute cuisine” incorporating imported foods from Mediterranean climates like fresh vegetables and olive oil. Many of the dishes considered traditional in today’s Lithuanian cuisine (including the saltibarsciai beet soup) can be traced somewhat back to the culinary heritage left by the GDL.
As the influence of the old elite dwindled and the peasants grew empowered, however, the overall model of food consumption in Lithuania shifted focus towards more nutritional eating. The Lithuanians earnestly focused on improving vitamin content, macronutrients and calories in a way that created a significant deviation from the traditional (pretty hedonistic) GDL cuisine. The “birth” of the modern Lithuanian cuisine with this added nutritional emphases is commonly marked by the publishing of Liudvika Didžiulienė-Žmona’s 1893 cookbook titled Lithuanian Housewife.
Unfortunately the repression under Soviet rule and collectivization of agricultural lands did more harm than good to the overall cuisine. During the occupation, campaigns involving forced industrialization and harsher modern versions of Russification negatively shifted the food paradigm in Lithuania to one of a “canteen cuisine.” During this time, recipes were dwindled down to their barest form in the name of practicality and efficiency.
Since their liberation, modern Lithuanian cuisine has been developing slowly again and incorporating both old traditions and new ingredients into its repertoire. Bit by bit, the cuisine – while still relatively unknown to the outside world – is growing into a highly nutritious and very substantial food culture.
About this Beet Soup Recipe
One thing you can certainly say about saltibarsciai is that it’s very easy to prepare. At its core, the bulk of the recipe’s preparation is simply aggregating ingredients together into a bowl.
Of course, every saltibarsciai requires beets as the main ingredient. It is, after all, where the dish gets both its flavor and its color from. The beets should be steamed and pre-cooked ahead of time before then being either grated or cut into small pieces and placed into a large serving bowl. It’s important to remark here also that, in the process of pre-cooking the beets, collecting the extra beet juice to reincorporate into the beet soup is a really fantastic idea.
Next, most versions of saltibarsciai will have some form of gherkin or pickle added into the soup. Whereas most of the flavors added will have a savory or sweeter profile to them, adding pickles gives a nice twist of sour flavor to the soup as well. Generally, you’ll want to grate the pickles down before adding to your beet soup. From here, some might add chopped up hard-boiled egg as well, but this inclusion varies from recipe to recipe.
Next comes the real start of the show: kefyras, or kefir. Kefir is a fermented enzyme-rich cultured beverage that originates from the Caucasus Mountains. Sometimes affectionately called the “Drink of the Prophet (Muhammad)” in Muslim Caucasian communities, kefir is jam-packed with beneficial micro-organisms, macronutrients and vitamins and minerals. While indeed a yogurt relative, kefir itself is slightly different in that it contains additional strains of beneficial bacteria and is mesophilic, meaning the bacteria thrive in cooler and room temperatures.
For saltibarsciai, you simply add the kefir over your beets and pickles. As you stir everything through, the originally white kefir will begin to take on a delightful pinkish or purple coloring depending on how much beet juice you have added.
Finally, you’ll want to add your aromatic ingredients. In general, the most prominent herb in Lithuanian cuisine is dill, which most would contend should certainly be added to your saltibarsciai. After another good stir, you let it cool in the fridge until it comes time to serve, and then it’s time to enjoy!
Our Take on the Recipe
When trying to make saltibarsciai, we had some immense troubles sourcing both raw beetroot and high-quality (non-processed) kefir. Interestingly, our original reference recipe warned us this might happen to people outside of Lithuania.
Alas, we made it with the best we could. For the beets, we found some stellar looking pre-cooked beets that had been vacuum sealed, so we went with those. If you were to make this beet soup for your own, we’d actually recommend going the pre-cooked route as well as it does cut down total preparation time pretty significantly.
To recreate the kefir, we tried a combination of Greek yogurt and buttermilk. We didn’t realize how much of a trouble it would really be to find truly quality kefir. Granted, there are brands of kefir in the stores around us, but none of them seemed remotely close to this highly nutritious super drink. Maybe it was all the additives that tipped us off.
In the beet soup itself, we added chives, spring onions and fresh cucumbers to add additional flavors. Technically, neither ingredient are very traditional to saltibarsciai, but they really did give the dish something extra.
Also, taking on the recommendation of our source recipe, we did add a touch of lemon juice to our version of saltibarsciai as well. We were pre-warned that this too was not a traditional ingredient, but the acidity did a lovely job brighten up the taste.
Other than that, saltibarsciai was a delightful beet soup to try and certainly one to keep in the back pocket as the days get warmer!
Have you tried saltibarsciai before? Or any other beet soup for that matter? Comment below!