Quintessential staple of every home cook, Russian cabbage soup, also known as Shchi, is at the center of Russian culinary tradition since the 9-11th century. That’s when the exotic cabbage was introduced to Russia by the Romans of Byzantine Empire. Initially it was a medical treatment for various ailments. But ease of cultivation and storage, versatility and taste quickly turned cabbage into an everyday ingredient.
Base for Russian Cabbage Soup can be meat, fish, mushrooms or vegetables
Russian cabbage soup has been equally loved by the rich and the poor. Based on availability of ingredients and observance of religious fasts, the soup could be ‘rich’ or ‘skoromnoe’ (as in ‘fatty’) long simmered in a stock of bones and meat, or ’empty’ (‘postnie‘) including only mushrooms and vegetables. Since Orthodox fasts were long and plenty throughout the year, with animal products strictly prohibited, ’empty’ shchi was an excellent solution to serve a nourishing meal. Affluence notwithstanding, the aroma of sourish garlicky cabbage permeated through residences of both peasants and novelty.
Shchi is a source of many folks sayings, like ‘Shchi da kasha – eda nasha‘ (‘Shchi and porridge is our food’) which originated from Alexander Suvorov, ‘Gde Shchi, tam i russkih ishi‘ (‘If there is shchi, there are Russians’).
Shchi – frozen convenience food?
One fun fact I discovered is that in the 18-19th centuries, travelers froze big batches of soup during the dead of winter, chopped with an ax when hungry, and tossed into pots to heat over the fire.
Russian Cabbage Soup – endless variations with a couple of basics
Until the invention of modern stove, shchi was prepared in an iron pot called Chugunok, or clay pots, in Russian clay oven. The process was not simply boiling, but more like slow cooking or steeping. That type of cooking gave schi a special aroma and texture hard to compare with anything else.
So initially folks make the base stock, slow simmer meat bones or mushrooms until they virtually fall apart. After that they add the bulk – fresh or lacto fermented cabbage, or in its absence – available greens like nettles and sorrel. Carrots and parsley root come next, and finally aromatics – garlic, dill, parsley, bay leaves, black peppercorns. Sour ‘zapravka’ is the finishing touch, and that could be brine from fermented cabbage or apples, sour cream or soured milk (prostokvasha), and kvass.
Potatoes became part of shchi in the 17th century. Before that turnips were often included. Until the 19th century, with the rise of French influence in cooking, rye flour was used to thicken and substantiate shchi.
Onions would be added twice – once during broth simmering, and then again at the end to add more flavor. Root vegetables were chopped into rings called ‘kopeechki‘ (small coins).
No need to saute vegetables before adding them to Russian Cabbage Soup
It is a common practice nowadays to saute onions, garlic, carrots before adding them to soups. But traditionally only raw vegetables went into the pot of shchi. That probably made for a healthier meal. But also – how much easier is that? No need to wash an extra pan and waste precious butter, because that hearty stock has plenty of fat to nourish and sustain.
Eat Russian Cabbage Soup with hearty whole grain sourdough
There is nothing (and I mean nothing!) in the world better than a bowl of steaming shchi with a slice of fragrant whole grain dark rye bread (pick one you like). Rub the bread it with a crushed garlic clove and toss the garlic into the soup for ultimate real food experience.
My version of Russian Cabbage Soup
My version is very simple. I don’t care for chunks of carrots and parsley root so I omit those. I also don’t use chopped onions because of my kids. The onion flavor comes from simmering the both broth with a whole onion, which I remove later. My kids are pretty picky when it comes to food, but they universally love this soup.
I have used different bones and cuts of meat, and find that beef ribs (including short ribs) make the best stock. They are easy to procure in any area, have plenty of connective tissue to extract collagen, and good amount of meat. Animal collagen has plenty of health benefits, plus it creates stock that has more substance when it comes to mouth feel. So we get the best of both world – it’s satisfyingly delicious and healthy!
Skip the potatoes, and you’ll have a Paleo approved meal. Toss in a couple of hot red chili peppers for an extra kick. Add spices or roots that you like – don’t just listen to me! Traditional food is a baseline that we tailor to our own preferences. If you don’t like dill, don’t use dill because recipe calls for it, thinking you might like it in this recipe. You won’t. Use more common sense and less instructions! 🙂
HOW TO MAKE ONE POT RUSSIAN CABBAGE SOUP
2 beef ribs
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 large russet potatoes, diced small
1/2 small or 1/4 large green cabbage, finely shredded, tough stems discarded
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons vinegar (I use apple cider vinegar; white works too)
3 cloves garlic, crushed
Fresh dill, small bunch, finely chopped
Serve with: sour cream, fresh dill and parsley, chopped garlic, green onions
Place 2 beef ribs, 1 onion, 1 celery, 1/2 lemon, 1 carrot, 2 bay leaves and 1 teaspoon black peppercorns into a 4-quart pot.
Add 2 diced potatoes, cook on low until potatoes start to soften, about 15 minutes.
Remove the meat bones, set aside.
Add shredded green cabbage and simmer until cabbage softens, 20 minutes or so. If the water level reduced significantly, add some boiling water.
Add 3 tablespoons of tomato paste, 2 tablespoons vinegar, 3 crushed garlic cloves; mix well.
Remove the meat off the bones, and add back to the soup (I didn’t on the photos here since one of my kids doesn’t like meat in her soup, I add it separately to the other kids’ bowls).
Simmer for 10 minutes. Add salt and ground pepper to taste.
Before serving, add 3 cloves of crushed or pressed garlic, and finely chopped dill.
- 2 beef ribs
- 1 onion
- 1 celery
- ½ lemon
- 1 carrot
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 2 large russet potatoes, diced small
- ½ small or ¼ large green cabbage, finely shredded
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons vinegar (I use apple cider vinegar; white works too)
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed
- Fresh dill, small bunch, finely chopped
- Serve with: sour cream, fresh dill, chopped garlic, green onions
- Place 2 beef ribs, 1 onion, 1 celery, ½ lemon, 1 carrot, 2 bay leaves and 1 teaspoon black peppercorns into a 4-quart pot.
- Uncovered, bring to boil, reduce to low, and simmer for 1.5 - 2 hours, skimming off the scum occasionally until none is left.
- Remove and discard everything but the meat bones.
- Add 2 diced potatoes, cook on low until potatoes start to soften, about 15 minutes.
- Remove the meat bones, set aside.
- Add shredded green cabbage and simmer until cabbage softens, 20 minutes or so.
- Add 3 tablespoons tomato paste, 2 tablespoons vinegar, 3 crushed garlic cloves; mix well.
- Remove the meat off the bones, and add back to the soup (I didn't on the photos here since one of my kids doesn't like meat in her soup, I add it separately to the other kids' bowls).
- Simmer for 10 minutes. Add salt and ground black pepper to taste.
- Before serving, add 3 cloves of crushed or pressed garlic, and finely chopped dill.