Tuesday, June 20, 2006


In California a few years back I had a couple of friends who belonged to the Lithuanian expatriate community in Los Angeles, which along with Chicago is one of the largest communities of Lithuanians living outside of Lithuania. The heart of the community is at the Lithuanian church in Los Feliz, where they hold, among many things, Saturday language courses that are de rigeur for anyone born to Lithuanian heritage, as well as services and weddings, etc. Every year they also hold several festivals including a fair in October that lasts for three days. At these gatherings, a number of traditional dishes are offered. Much of Lithuanian cuisine revolves around potatoes, sour cream and bacon, such as kugelis, a sort of potato pudding baked in a casserole dish and topped with sour cream and bacon; blynai, potato pancakes topped with sour cream and bacon; and cepelinai, or "zeppelins", translated as "little blimps", a large potato dumpling with either pork or mushroom filling and topped with, you guessed it, sour cream and bacon. Though I find it quite impossible to go wrong with potatoes, sour cream and bacon, my personal favorite at these gatherings was always saltibarsciai, a dish whose name it took me quite some time to learn how to say, and even longer to remember how to spell. If I'm not mistaken it is roughly pronounced "shal-ti-BAR-shah". It should have this funny little "u" shape over the "S" but try as I might I have no idea how to make that symbol on my keyboard.

Saltibarsciai is a vegetarian cold beet soup, a little bit like borscht. In Lithuania it is traditionally eaten during the summer months, although it's eaten pretty much all year round in the Los Angeles community due to the warm climate in southern California. It's quite filling without being too heavy. A few years ago, as my first summer rolled around in Paris, and with it the hot humid weather, the first thing I did was email my Lithuanian friend in California to ask her to send me the recipe for saltibarsciai. Every year now, as soon as the weather turns balmy, I start to daydream about preparing a bowl of this lovely refreshing soup, with its crunchy cucumber, sweet and sour beets and dill. It is terribly easy to make, needs only to chill for several hours and if that isn't enough it's a very pleasing shade of fuschia, which may be off-putting at first to people who aren't used to pink food, but don't let that stop you from trying it. Eddie flipped out the first time I set a bowl of fluorescent pink soup in front of him, but now he is a converted fan.

The recipe calls for, among other things:

1 liter buttermilk: This was in the recipe I was originally given a few years back. However, I have heard that in Lithuania the recipe actually calls for kefir, which I had difficulty finding in California, which is why I have always used buttermilk. I have always thought that maybe some very liquidy yogurt or a mixture of yogurt and milk might work in a pinch, but I haven't tried that so I'm not certain how it would turn out. In France I look for lait fermenté at Monoprix.

Beets: Most recipes for saltibarsciai require boiling 1 pound of beets until tender and then peeling them and cutting them into matchsticks. However, the recipe I was originally handed suggested using a jar of pickled beets instead, liquid and all. I think this works nicely, it is less messy and time consuming and so I have therefore never deviated from this method. A bonus with using the pickled beets is that you get a nice sweet and sour element. In fact, if you do choose to boil beets instead I would suggest adding a dash of vinegar and a pinch of sugar in the final stages (actually that is something you can do anyway if you so desire).

All together now:

1 jar of pickled beets, julienned and reserving liquid OR
1lb raw beets, boiled, peeled and julienned, plus one cup of the boiled water, cooled

1 liter of buttermilk (or kefir, or yogurt, see above)
1 medium cucumber, julienned
3 hard boiled eggs, peeled and yolks separated
a handful of scallions, chopped
1 bunch of dill, finely chopped
1 tsp salt

For garnish:
sour cream
8 medium potatoes, boiled, peeled and cooled
a bit of the chopped dill

In a large bowl mash the scallions with the salt and the egg yolks to release the flavor. Coarsely chop the egg whites and add them to the bowl. Add the pickled beets along with their liquid, or else the boiled beets plus the cooled water used in the boiling. Add the cucumber and the buttermilk. Add about three fourths of the dill, setting aside a bit for garnish. If you like a more sweet and sour taste you can also add a dash of vinegar and/or a pinch of sugar. Stir, cover and chill for at least three hours.

Ladle into bowls and spoon a dollop of sour cream on top and a sprinkling of the remaining dill. Serve alongside 1 or 2 potatoes per person, which you will then dunk into the soup, one bite at a time.

Makes a lovely light dinner on a hot muggy summer evening. You can even drop a couple of ice cubes in there if it's a real scorcher of a night.

I shouldn't talk about Lithuania without mentioning Carra , who grew up in Lithuania and was a child during the revolution there and now lives in the Pyrenees with her British husband. I am certain she can pronounce "saltibarsciai" much better than I can.


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