What makes so many Belarusians strong, beautiful and healthy? It is very possible it could be from using so many of the vegetables grown on their ample lands. Here is a little excursion into some of the secret histories of Belarusian vegetables so popular in our wonderful cuisine.
It is funny how history chooses special monikers for each nation. Belarusians came to be affectionately known as bulbashi. No one is surprised by this nickname. It is a well-known fact that Belarusians love potatoes, which form the basis of Belarusian cuisine. The word for “potato” in the Belarusian language is bulba. And bulba can be boiled, fried, baked, steamed, and cooked in many other ways. Amazingly, it is thought that Belarusians are known for using potatoes in more than 1,000 recipes! One could write an entire ode to the potato. While some may think the potato has always been the main staple crop of Belarus, few realize that the potato stands out as one of the most recent tubers to appear on Belarusian lands. Potatoes only became a feature in Belarus at the end of the 18th century, thanks to the king at the time, Stanislaw August Poniatowski. During his time, Poniatowski was known for supporting great culture and providing education in Belarus. However, he also popularized the simple root vegetable for his people at the government level.
Belarusians had utilized other tubers up until that time. For example, the Jerusalem artichoke, of North American origin, appeared in Belarus earlier than the potato, namely in the beginning of the 18th century. This root vegetable was popular and fashionably embellished on the tables of the nobility. In Belarus, they were not called artichokes, but rather, bulve.
Other root crops widely grown and eaten in Belarus throughout its history include celery, which first appeared in Western Europe at the beginning of the 18th century. This vegetable came to Belarus through trade and cultural ties. Parsley – celery’s relative – emerged much earlier in Belarus, even earlier than in Western Europe. Belarusians had garnered a taste for parsley during the Byzantine Empire (330 – 1453 AD). The same can be said of parsnips, one of the most ancient root vegetables. Parsnip seeds have been found at Neolithic archeological sites, indicating that humans had already cultivated this vegetable over four thousand years ago. Parsnips remain a famed and popular food throughout Belarus. With their wonderful flavor and delicious aroma, they can almost be considered a Belarusian brand, having been traditionally enjoyed since the medieval era. Parsley, parsnips and celery were all called “white roots” during the Middle Ages.
Along with the white roots, there were also black tubers. One black tuber, scientifically called scorzonera, is commonly known as salsify or oyster plant. People of the Middle Ages showed fondness for this dark tuber. Salsify tastes much like refined hazelnut and can be used to grace any restaurant dish. In Europe, salsify began to be featured in cuisine in the 16th century, but Belarusians had cultivated and consumed the root long before then.
At one time, carrots also came in a black variety. The orange type that is now standard, appeared relatively late; the Dutch selected for this color of carrot. Carrots held prominence even among ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks. Although now widely used in Belarusian cuisine, the country actually adopted carrots in the early Middle Ages.
Yet another Belarusian root vegetable, the radish, naturally occurs in both white and black varieties. For 200 – 300 years Belarusians have cultivated the crop and can be called experts in radish harvesting. And how could we forget horseradish? Common horseradish, sold in marketplaces by expert old women, endures as a prominent produce. Centuries ago, horseradish reached other European countries because of Belarusians, and it remains a popular food throughout Europe even now. The root then travelled to Poland, and later, in the 16th century, to Germany. The Germans became the first Western Europeans to grate the vegetable and use it as a condiment. Later the seasoning was introduced to the French and subsequently to England. What is Belarusian cuisine without the turnip, which has been used since ancient times? The cultivation of turnips has remained unchanged since its inception. If the radish underwent alterations over the era, it was so that horseradish can have many varieties. In contrast, the turnip has remained in its original form, just as it was
4,000 years ago.
One more bulb enjoyed by Belarusians throughout history is the glorious, yet humble beet! Rumor has it that Belarusians can make as many foods from the beet as they do from potatoes. It’s no wonder that in ancient times Belarusians were called “beet-heads.” This was not only because borscht, a soup made from beets, was immensely popular in those days, but also because beets became symbolic of Belarus – even more than the potato. To see the rich beauty of the beet, you need simply to cut the root and take in the luscious deep, dark red color. One who felt and understood the symbolism of this particular root vegetable was Francishak Bahushevich (1840 – 1900), considered the father of Belarusian literature. In publishing Dudka Belarus (The Belarusian Fiddle), Bahushevich introduced the national identity of Belarus to the world, including its language, people and literature. It was no accident that this author chose the pseudonym Matthew Burachok, with the word burachok translating to “beet.”
There is reason to call Belarusians the name of a root vegetable, which is hidden underground. The nature of the people reminds one of root crops – hidden, inconspicuous, and deep. If you take the time to get to know these “roots,” you will be rewarded with the beauty of their character, energy and diligence. Knowing about sweet folk names like bulbashi and beet-heads, allows us to learn more about Belarus and her people. After all, these amusing nicknames mirror the souls of the people who continue to live on the land of their ancestors, and glorify the native lands with their work and love.
By Irina Webster