The Boršč: When a taste of home means something more

Oleksandr Martynov and Nataliia Bas

Just off Prague’s Náměstí Jiřího z Poděbrad is where you will find The Boršč. The Ukrainian soup restaurant was opened two years ago by the married couple Oleksandr Martynov and Nataliia Bas with a view to promoting their nation’s food and culture in their adopted home of Czechia. However, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the bistro found new significance. Recently The Boršč also made a splash on social media thanks to a visit from Hollywood actor Willem Dafoe.

The Boršč at U vodárny 10 | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

You opened this place in the second half of 2021. What was the reason for opening this very cosy little restaurant?

Martynov: “The reason was that we Ukrainians had a major borscht beef with Russia [laughs] – not beef like meat, but a battle for whose borscht is.

“We were really inspired by a famous Ukrainian chef whose mission is – right now it’s already happened – to get borscht recognised by UNESCO.

“Basically that story started with Michelin writing on their Instagram page about something like ‘classic Russian borscht’.

“A lot of Ukrainians were triggered by that, us included.

“It started from there. We thought, Let’s try something.

“And we didn’t know how much trouble it’s going to be to open even this kind of small bistro [laughs].

“But yeah, we’re here. It was before the major war started, so our idea was also to popularise Ukrainian culture; Ukrainian cuisine as well.

“There were some Ukrainian places [in Prague], but they were mostly, I think, for Ukrainians, so they didn’t have this aim to make Ukrainian cuisine popular and known.

“So that was our mission initially.”

Did you guys have a background in cooking? Or were you just amateur chefs?

Bas: “I cooked some borscht at home, because I’m Ukrainian [laughs] – we can do it!

“But no, we are not chefs. But we looked for a very good Ukrainian chef, a very good cook, and now we have one at our restaurant.”

The Boršč | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

And you serve various kinds of borscht? There’s not just one type?

Bas: “There are at least 70 recipes of Ukrainian borscht.

“It can be with different kinds of meat, different vegetables, different styles of preparing.”

And you also serve other dishes – it’s not just the traditional Ukrainian soup?

Bas: “Yes, we have several traditional Ukrainian main dishes: Varenyky, holubtsi, chicken Kyiv, syrniki.

“We have foods that can be called original, traditional Ukrainian, yes – not Soviet, not Russian, but what our grandmothers and great-grandmothers were cooking.”

“During the Soviet time there was pressure to make people forget their traditional food, traditional culture.”

So you’re using historical Ukrainian recipes?

Martynov: “In a way, because what partially happened during the Soviet time is that a lot of those things went away.

“Because there was pressure to make everything unified, to make people forget their traditional food, traditional culture; languages as well.

“Yes, it’s in a way a movement in Ukraine to restore traditional recipes.

“The books that you will see on our shelves are about this kind of stuff – even things that we didn’t eat as children, because some different food was given to us.

“But people look for historical cookbooks. They even search for historical recipes in some literature, where it’s just partially mentioned and they try to create the recipes.

“So partially yes, we are inspired by that.”

The Boršč | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

How did the restaurant change after February 24 last year? I presume greatly.

Bas: “This first day of the big war was a working day.

“From the early morning we knew already, of course – we got messages.

“And we didn’t know if we even can work that day.

“But with our girls from the kitchen we decided to try, because we all needed to do something, to do something manually, not to scroll our Facebook.

“So we came here, we worked without music… I remember that day was so weird.

“So many people came here, just to say something.

“We all were almost like crying, because so many bombs, so many messages, so many thoughts about it.

“I would say that our state was so awful, but the people who came were so kind.”

“We just donate, donate, donate, because what can we do from Czechia?”

You mean Czech people?

“Yes, yes. They were supportive. They started to give us money, to donate.

“Because we started to donate at the very beginning. Now [laughs] we just donate, donate, donate, because what can we do from Czechia?”

What about after that day? More people started coming here, refugees started coming here, using it like a culture centre almost?

Martynov: “Yes. They were a lot of centres for support where people could pick up some humanitarian stuff – so we were not the only ones, and there are people who do much more than us.

“But, yes, I guess what made us different is that we clearly have a sign that we are Ukrainian, a polévkárna [soup restaurant] in our case.

“So when you Google something Ukrainian, or when you even walk down the street, you can see that it’s Ukrainian.

“People just come in to say something, to ask something.

“But that didn’t happen probably for the first two or three weeks or so, because people started arriving slightly later.

“But yeah, it was something like this.

“There were a lot of informational messages at our bar that people could pick up.

“Some people were bringing, I don’t know, diapers to us and just donating them, so we could give them to somebody.”

Boršč | Photo: ivabalk,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

Anybody who goes abroad likes to eat their national food when they’re away, just as a kind of comfort food. I presume that must have been doubly the case for Ukrainian refugees, who were coming from such a terrible situation?

Martynov: “Yes, yes, for sure.

“A lot of people miss that food. A lot of people have been coming just to eat something which is familiar to them.

“I guess partially that was our mission, to feed Ukrainians here, but also to introduce this food to people who don’t know about it.

“It’s still happening. Even though a lot of people are returning to Ukraine, still we have many Ukrainians coming, because they want to eat that kind of stuff.”

I have to ask you also – how are your own families doing?

Bas: “The women from my family are now all here in Prague.

“We rented them a flat, because they have a little baby and they just can’t manage all the things a baby needs in the situation in Ukraine, without electricity, without water, without heating.

“So my women are here and we managed it.”

“I’m a teacher of the Russian language but I want to forget all this stuff, because I’m furious about it.”

I’m sure you have a lot of Ukrainian friends in Prague. What is the mood among your community? What are people’s feelings about what may happen in the future? Are people optimistic? Are they pessimistic?

Bas: “I’m so angry. I’m furious. I hate Russia [laughs].

“I’m a teacher of the Russian language but I want to forget all this stuff, because [sighs] I’m furious about it.

“I try to do what I can do here to popularise our culture and to donate to our army.

“Like, what can I do?”

Martynov: “I would say that at the beginning it was very hard.

“Probably some people – I mean males – were probably making choices, whether they want to go and fight.

“I didn’t have any military experience. I feel guilt that I’m not there, but I also know that I wouldn’t be able to help.

“So there’s kind of a mixture of guilt, anger – of course that goes on for many people in a position like myself.

“Another thing is that you have this weird situation where something terrible happens in your homeland, and on the other side everything is good around you.

“It’s some kind of cognitive dissonance, because it’s both terrible and OK, and sometimes even amazing, in your private or work life.

“So it’s hard to reconcile.

“The first month you’re sad all the time, you want to cry, you are angry.

“But the psyche does something with it. In a month these emotions are not that pronounced and you find a way to manage and to reconcile those two states.

“Many people are in weird situations.

“Of course our friends go on vacations. At the same time [laughs] it’s normal to want to go on vacations, but still you feel guilty.

“You don’t post that stuff on social media, because it’s not like before for us.

“It’s weird, yeah.”

The Boršč | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

Obviously there are a lot of Russians living in Prague, including I presume many who hate Putin and maybe left Russia because of the situation in their country, which is a virtual dictatorship. But how do you feel when you run into Russians on the street, or if they come in the restaurant, which I guess they wouldn’t? How do you feel when you run into them in public places?

Martynov: “So there are different people. Some people are sensible and they try to… There were some regulars who kind of adjusted their behaviour.

“They’re not as loud. They don’t occupy that much space any more.

“They try to behave more modestly, I would say.”

“It’s kind of a divisive thing among Ukrainians, how you treat Russians.”

But they still come here?

Martynov: “Some do, yes, and why not? I mean, it’s kind of a divisive thing among Ukrainians, how you treat Russians.

“And I think there good arguments on both sides.”

Bas: “But now we don’t speak Russian here [laughs].”

Martynov: “We didn’t before.”

Bas: “We didn’t even before. We have a sign: Mluvíme česky, розмовляємо українською and We Speak English

“But they have to understand from the beginning, from the entrance, that we don’t speak Russian, so please English or Czech – that’s not a problem for us.

“Sometimes they ignore it and speak Russian, but we don’t answer [laughs].

“That’s the minimum that I can do.

“Because for sure I can’t prohibit anything for them here.

“It’s a restaurant, I’m a barman, so I have to be nice to my visitors.

“But now, without Russian language.”

Martynov: “That’s what I was trying to say – some are sensible, some are not, and they kind as behave as if nothing happened.

“And I probably understand why.

“They also try to pretend nothing happened, because for them it’s also hard to deal with it.

“There was one regular who came and said, I hate this country, I don’t want it to exist anymore.

“There are people like this.”

Nataliya Bas and her friends ran into Willem Dafoe on Old Town Square

On a different topic entirely, we kind of got in touch recently on social media after you got a lot of attention because the actor Willem Dafoe came here. What was exactly was the story with Willem Dafoe?

Bas: “My friends and I were just walking in Prague 1, on Old Town Square, and we saw this man.

“We were like, Hmmm, such a familiar face.

“Then we went up to him and asked for a photo and talked a little about ourselves, that we are Ukrainians.

“One of my friends had a concert that evening, so she invited him to the concert.

“I invited him to my soup restaurant, to my bistro.

“I couldn’t imagine Willem Dafoe would have the time for this bowl of borscht.”

“We talked a little and then I said, The Boršč is such a simple name; just open Google Maps and put there The Boršč – and that is all, it’s my restaurant.

“So the next day he was here, at our place.

“Wow [laughs] – I couldn’t imagine that he would have the time for this bowl of borscht.

Oleksandr Martynov and Nataliia Bas | Photo: The Boršč

“He was so nice. He had simple borscht and kvass, our fermented bread drink, which I called ‘taste of Ukrainian childhood’, and he loved it, I think.

“We had a photo with him and then [laughs] everyone wrote about it.

“But it was just a bowl of borscht.”

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