Lithuania makes an impression on travelers in many ways, and in summer, one of those ways is with Lithuanian pink soup, saltibarsciai. Saltibarsciai translates to “cold borscht” or “cold beet soup,” and it’s this quintessentially Eastern European root vegetable that lend the soup its characteristic pink color.
You may encounter a version of saltibarsciai in other parts of the region—for example, the Poles call it chłodnik litewski (Lithuanian cold soup), and the Latvians call it aukstā zupa (cold soup), but many people associate this soup with Lithuania, the most southern of the Baltic countries.
A Summertime Staple Recipe
Saltibarsciai is a ubiquitous Lithuanian food during the summer months. It’s a Lithuanian food that everyone—locals and visitors—look forward to because it’s refreshing, unusual, and tasty. Typically served with a side of potatoes, Lithuanian pink beetroot soup is also great for instagramming and adding a touch of the unexpected to your other social media feeds.
While most travelers to Lithuania sample pink soup at restaurants, many Lithuanians make it themselves according to longstanding family recipes.
It’s such an important aspect of the Lithuanian summer menu and the list of Lithuanian traditional foods in general that it often appears as the first entry in the soup chapter of Lithuanian cookbooks! While some ingredients may differ, the basic composition of cold borscht soup is as follows:
Lithuanian Pink Soup Ingredients
- 1 liter or 4 cups high-fat (5-6%) kefir
- 2 cook beets, grated or julienned; marinated beets can also be used
- 2-3 short cucumbers or 1 English cucumber, peeled and grated or julienned
- Fresh dill
- Chopped scallions
- Two boiled eggs, grated or sliced
- Boiled new potatoes, to serve on the side
While Lithuanian cuisine requires ingredients that are sometimes particular to the region, it’s possible to make a cold pink soup using corresponding products from your supermarket.
For example, if your kefir contains less fat than the recommended 5-6%, use a couple of spoonfuls of sour cream to increase the fat content and make your Lithuanian pink soup even tastier!
Don’t worry—although the kefir Lithuanians use is typically of a special high-fat type that is produced especially for saltibarsciai, they also use this trick!
The All-important Beets
Beets are easily found in Lithuania, but they may not be offered in such a vast variety elsewhere. In Lithuania, beets are able to be purchased already cooked and peeled. Jarred, packaged, and marinated beets have the advantage of being already cut properly for use in pink soup and may have added flavors, such as caraway, to create a soup with more flavor.
It’s possible to use fresh beets and boil and peel them yourself, of course, if you don’t have access to beets that have already been processed (but beware—that lovely pink color comes from the beetroot juice that stains everything, including hands, cutting boards, clothing, and white countertops).
Check your supermarket’s canned and jarred foods section to see if it has anything comparable—even canned beets will work.
Lithuanian Pink Soup Preparation
Place the beets into a large bowl and pour in the kefir.
Tip: make sure your bowl is big enough so that the soup only reaches an inch or two below its rim—because it ferments in the fridge, saltibarsciai will “grow” as it sits!
Stir in the chopped scallions and dill.
Tip: Chives can be used instead of scallions.
Salt and pepper to taste.
Tip: Add ground caraway for a distinctive flavor.
Cover the bowl tightly and put it in the fridge overnight to let the kefir do its work and for the flavors to develop. This step is essential to a really good Lithuanian pink beetroot soup!
Serving Lithuanian Cold Pink Soup
Dish the soup out into bowls and top with the grated or sliced egg. For extra color, add a sprig of fresh dill. Serve with a side of boiled new potatoes seasoned with salt and pepper, which is how the Lithuanians enjoy their saltibarsciai, making the best of the seasonal ingredients at their fingertips.
Tip: some people like to thin their saltibarsciai with sparkling mineral water. For a Lithuanian taste, add Vytautas mineral water, Lithuania’s strong-tasting, salty sparkling water.
Historically, Lithuanian cold soup was made without beetroot. While mention of cold soup from Lithuania is made in earlier documents, it wasn’t until the 19th century that recorded recipes began to appear.
Early Pink Soup Recipes
These early recipes included cucumber, dill, sour cream, and eggs, and these older versions of the recipe may have also contained crayfish, veal, or trout.
It was only later that beetroots began to be added, creating that shocking color that is more often associated with cupcake frosting than a savory soup.
The Introduction of Kefir
Of course, the history of saltibarsciai is also entwined with the history of kefir, cold pink soup’s base. Kefir does not originate in Lithuania and rather comes from a long tradition in the Caucasus Mountains. In the early 1900s, Russian doctors were interested in kefir’s health-promoting properties and wanted to offer it to their patients.
Kefir eventually became such an attractive product that cultured food experts in Russia developed a way to produce it commercially, and knowledge of the process spread, which is how we can readily buy kefir off of supermarket shelves (including that special Lithuanian saltibarsciai kefir) today.
Saltibarsciai Throughout the Summer
Lithuanian families often make a big pot of cold pink soup—enough to last a couple of days. The flavors mature and grow more interesting the longer the soup sits in the fridge.
Dill is at its peak during this season, and it’s best picked fresh from the plant, though it’s also available in supermarkets. In Lithuania, grocery stores sell packages of green onions and dill together for ease of use.
The new potatoes, with their thin skins, appear around this time, making them the perfect accompaniment to a summer meal.
Tasting Cold Pink Soup in Vilnius and Beyond
Of course, you may be wondering where you can try cold beet soup when you visit Vilnius or travel to other parts of Lithuania. The answer is that during the summer, you can find it almost anywhere, from casual places all the way up to gourmet restaurants. For example, even the restaurant at Monte Pacis—an award-winning restaurant—serves saltibarsciai from its summertime lunch menu.
Lithuanian cookbooks usually include a version of saltibarsciai, or cold borsch.
The Lithuania: Real is Beautiful website offers a list of restaurants throughout the country serving different versions of saltibarsciai. The imaginative ingredients include quail eggs, mint oil, goat cheese, spinach, radishes, crayfish tails, and even blackberries and ham. You can also sample a vegan version of the soup or eat it as a cake!
Vilnius Airport greeted visitors in 2020 with a giant bowl of cold beetroot soup, kicking of the Lithuanian tourism advertisement campaign related to the various colors that will great visitors to Lithuania when they arrive, including “cold pink” as an alternative to “hot pink.”
Is Lithuanian Cold Beat Soup Healthy?
The healthiness of saltibarsciai depends a lot on your dietary restrictions and the ingredients used.
Quality Ingredients Matter
A healthier version of this Lithuanian soup could be made from all organic ingredients and pastured eggs. Of course, it’s also possible to make your own kefir using grains purchased from cultured food companies from high-quality milk (however, you may still want to add sour cream to your recipe to increase the fat content).
Good for the Gut
But given that it’s a fermented food—and we are increasingly more often told to eat fermented foods to improve gut health (and thus overall health)—and that the ingredients besides kefir and the optional egg are plant-based, cold pink soup may be considered healthy.
Another consideration if you’re sugar sensitive is that, though beets are sugary, the fermentation process reduces the sugar somewhat. Finally, new potatoes are full of resistant starch, also good for the gut microbiome!
So, whether you try saltibarsciai when you travel to Lithuania or make it yourself at home, if you’re a fan of Eastern European cuisine, Lithuanian cold pink soup is a must-try dish!