Lithuanian Cold Beet Soup

Cold Beet Soup

The source of my love of food must have something to do with my parent’s love of going out to eat. Even when I was very young (single digits) my parents would take the family for a restaurant meal at least once a month (or so it feels like now). My parents weren’t well off – not even close – so the restaurants typically fell into the “cheap eats” category of dining. But as many of you know, cheap eats can often been found in small, family-run establishments, and are especially prevalent in large, multi-ethnic cities like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.

One such memory is of Tulpe, a Lithuanian restaurant in Chicago we used to frequent, back when we still lived in the city proper (rather than the burbs). My recollections are hazy, almost dream-like: the place was small, badly (but brightly) lit, and all the furniture was made of metal, plastic and vinyl. The staff were way less friendly than the folks at Chucky Cheese, and the seats far less comfortable. But I remember the food. My favorites: potato pancakes with sour cream and applesauce, cabbage soup (or at least I think that’s what was – something brothy with cabbage and chunks of unidentifiable meat product – my uni-digit self had not yet heard of “vegetarianism”), and cold beet soup.

For those who have never been introduced, Lithuanian cold beet soup (aka cold borscht) is extraordinarily weird. It begins with the color, an almost unnatural day-glo pink that seems better suited for a rave than a soup bowl. Add to that, the soup is cold. Who eats cold soup that isn’t gazpacho (quiet you raw foodists!)? Finally, one of the hallmarks of this soup is hard boiled eggs, which just sounds gross in soup form. This cold beet soup just doesn’t make any sense.

And yet it works.

Despite its color, cold beet soup is completely natural – it gets its color from the combination of bright red beet juice and creamy white sour cream (or buttermilk, or Greek Yoghurt, depending on what’s going). And for a cold soup, it’s surprisingly hearty and satisfying.

I’ve been wanting to recreate the cold beet soup of my childhood dreams ever since the sun came out and the beets arrived in the Riverford organic box. I did some intense research on the Google and settled on this recipe, purely because my brain for some reason associates early 2000 style websites with the best in ethnic cuisine.

The recipe reflects the flexibility of cold beet soup. There’s little more to it than boiled beets, lemon juice, salt, pepper and dill. Everything else (potatoes, eggs, spring onion, cucumber, and sour cream) is garnish, which you can add as much or as little of as you like. But a bit of garnish is essential – this is the stuff that balances the whole thing out (otherwise you’re just eating a bunch of beets!).

There is something about cold potato and egg soaked up with a bit of dilly beet juice that is thoroughly satisfying.

Another reason why I especially like this soup is that it’s one of the few Lithuanian foods I know of that is naturally vegetarian (what, no ham?!). It’s also prime recovery food, as I discovered after a 6-mile walk last weekend. The cold soup was refreshing, while the potato and egg replenished my energy for the rest of the day.

Cold Beet Soup

  • 3 large-ish beets, scrubbed well
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 Tbsp fresh dill, chopped
  • salt and pepper
  • 4 green onions, finely sliced
  • 1 cucumber, peeled and diced small
  • 1 potato, boiled and diced small
  • 4 boiled eggs, quartered or diced
  • Greek yoghurt or sour cream
  1. Put on an apron.
  2. Put the beets in a large pot, cover with water and bring to the boil. Simmer beets until they are soft all the way through (about 30 minutes depending on the size).
  3. Drain the beets but reserve the cooking water. Let the beets cool (you can do this in an ice bath to speed things up) then, while running them under cold water, peel off the skin (this should be easy).
  4. Grate the beets and put them into a large bowl. Add enough of the cooking water to make a good soupy consistency. Add the lemon juice, salt, pepper and dill. Check the taste and adjust the salt, pepper and dill to your liking.
  5. Put your desired amoung of potato and cucumber in a bowl. Ladle some beet soup over it. Top it with boiled eggs, Greek yogurt or sour cream, and spring onions. Serve!
  6. As you eat the soup and distribute the yogurt/sour cream, the soup will take on its characteristic pink hugh. You may also wish to mix in the yogurt/sour cream ahead of time – that is the traditional way!

Serves 4 (Give or take)

On a final note, it seems my memory of Tulpe is not altogether inaccurate. I found similar sentiments from Julianne Glatz on illinoistime.com:

Our favorite [Chicago cheap eat] was a miniscule Lithuanian, Tulpe. Filled (and filling) dumpling-esque dishes dominated. Some were round, some cylindrical, stuffed with meat, cheese or potato; all were topped with bacon, fried onions and sour cream. They were delicious but that wasn’t the only reason we loved Tulpe: On our first visit, the waitress wanted to show the cooks our redheaded 6-month-old; ever after, the cooks played with Anne in the kitchen while we ate. It was impossible to spend more than $10 for two – with leftovers.

Alas, Tulpe is no longer – an unfortunate trend? My reading suggests that many of the good old-school Lithuanian restaurants are falling to the wayside. Say it ain’t so…

I just got back from trip to Chicago, during which I sampled Lithuanian from “Healthy Foods,” 32nd & Halsted. My friend and I (both originally from “the old neighborhood”) ordered tons of stuff: Potato pancakes, kugelis, sausage, kraut, meat dumplings, cheese dumplings, hot beet soup, etc. Sad to say, it was OK, but no comparison to mine and not even much of a comparison to the old, now defunct restaurants that used to line 69th St. (Tulpe, Ramune’s) and nearby Western Ave. (Ruta’s, Palangas). I’ve tried (a few years ago)Mabenka (sp?) in suburbs (79th & Wolf Road??–not sure about address at all) and it was also OK, but again kind of mediocre.

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