How Russian borscht became a Hong Kong staple

Nov 27, 2018

Step into any old-school Western restaurant in Hong Kong, and you’ll be presented with a course menu that usually offers three things: a steak, dinner roll, and choice of soup.

Those soups are almost uniformly two options: cream or borscht, known in Chinese as 罗宋汤, literally “Russian soup.”

A course menu at Queen’s Cafe in Hong Kong with “borscht” misspelled.
A course menu at Queen’s Cafe in Hong Kong with “borscht” misspelled. / Photo: TripAdvisor

Growing up in Hong Kong, I never thought to question how a Ukrainian peasant soup ended up on menus half a world away. It was one of those things that just was, which is to say, borscht was as Hong Kong as milk tea and dim sum.

But in the same way that Chinese immigrants created Chinese-American cuisine in the United States, Europeans in Hong Kong adapted Western food to local tastes and gave birth to their own cuisine: soy-sauce Western.

(Read more: Five canned foods that highlight Hong Kong’s colonial legacy)

One of the cuisine’s most iconic dishes is borscht, though the local version is sweeter than traditional borscht. To understand how it got to Hong Kong, we have to go back to 1917, the year of the Russian revolution.

Home is where the soup is

After the czar was overthrown and the Communists came to power, the anti-Communists scattered. Some went to Vladivostok, a city near the Chinese border that was under Japanese protection at the time.

As the political situation worsened in the 1920s and ’30s, the Russian exiles entered China through Manchuria and eventually ended up in Shanghai, a free port that required no visas or papers for entry.

Russians arriving in Shanghai in 1930.
Russians arriving in Shanghai in 1930. / Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There, the recipe for borscht changed dramatically.

The original soup was traditionally made with beets and cabbages boiled in a meat broth. The result was a deep-red sour soup.

Beets were not common in Shanghai, so as a substitute, Russian chefs used red cabbage, oxtail, and tomatoes. Restaurants catering to the immigrant community began serving this modified version of borscht, which was more sweet than sour.

Traditional (left) vs. Hong Kong borscht.
Traditional (left) vs. Hong Kong borscht. / Photo: Samantha Sin/Wikimedia Commons

The Russian exiles in Shanghai weathered through the devastation of World War II, but after it was over, China plunged into a civil war between the Kuomintang and Communists.

(Read more: An account from the front lines of the Chinese Civil War)

The eventual victory of the Communists in 1949 forced many anti-Communist Russians to move once again.

A new life

Hong Kong, which was under British control, became a natural refuge. As many as 20,000 Russians moved to the city and brought the modified recipe for borscht with them.

These new immigrants opened up restaurants and bakeries catering to the exiled Russian community. Eventually, the Chinese staff at these Russian-owned establishments went off to create their own businesses—and took “Russian soup” with them.

One of the most famous Chinese-run establishments was Queen’s Cafe, named after Queen Elizabeth II.

The exterior of Queen’s Cafe in 1977.
The exterior of Queen’s Cafe in 1977. / Photo: Sunny Lee/SCMP

The restaurant was opened in 1952 by Mischa Yu, who worked under the tutelage of a Russian chef in Shanghai during the 1920s, according to its website.

Mimi Thorisson, a food writer who grew up in Hong Kong, recalls the brusque waiters at Queen’s Cafe who swiftly served borscht, potato salad, chicken wings, and nougats to a mostly Chinese clientele.

“There was an element of old-school Shanghai, influenced with Russian culture. I loved it.”

Queen’s Cafe in 1995. The restaurant served an array of Russian food.
Queen’s Cafe in 1995. The restaurant served an array of Russian food. / Photo: SCMP

These establishments are slowly disappearing in Hong Kong, overtaken by newer restaurants that promise more “authentic” Western cuisine, but some still exist.

My grandmother’s personal favorite, Boston Restaurant in Wan Chai, is still serving up the same sizzling plates and soup that it has for the past 50-plus years.

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Producers: Gavin Huang and Tiffany Ip

Videographer and Editor: Joel Roche