Ukha: Not your average fish soup


Ukha is an enigma of Russian cuisine. It sounds simple: fish, vegetables and spices. But what about all the places where it’s not made with these ingredients? While some people argue about it, others get into arguments – and sometimes heated arguments that turn into fights – over the fact that ukha is not fish soup at all. So what is the truth?

On the one hand, we suffer from excessive national pride. As we all know, “a poet in Russia is more than a poet”. So naturally we don’t just have fish soup, we have ukha. It’s not like the French bouillabaisse.

On the other hand, when we look deeper, we don’t know exactly what Ukha is. There are no canonical recipes for it and there never have been. In fact, until the 18th century, ukha was not a “fish soup” at all. We find “chicken ukha” or “duck ukha” in texts from the 17th century.

Even the word “ukha” is not specifically Russian. In all Slavic languages, from Polish to Bulgarian, there are similar words that mean soup or broth. For this reason, linguists have long suspected that the word comes from Old Indian yū́́ṣ. Russian “yushka” (broth or broth) is a holdover from ancient times, when fish, meat and poultry all went equally well in the pot.

Even old ukha names don’t make you feel patriotic. As the Russian-Ukrainian historian Nikolai Kostomarov wrote, in the 16th century, “fish soup with cloves was called black ukha, with pepper it was white ukha, and without spices – naked ukha.” So it turns out that without foreign spices our fish soup is “naked”? It’s not very flattering.

That said, today, once you try ukha, you won’t confuse it with any other soup. The paradox is that you can try dozens of kinds of ukha – each Russian province has always had its own recipe. In the Middle Volga it is made with sterlet (small sturgeon) and onions, in Arkhangelsk — with cod (even cod liver) and milk, in Baikal — with omul and rice. Azov ukha is really something special. It is made with tomatoes and apples – sometimes pickled apples.

Grate tomatoes for southern ukha
Pavel and Olga Syutkin

When you do this kind of ukha, you put in silver carp first. Then bream, European carp and carp. A few catfish. And the zander which, according to the locals, adds sweetness. But God forbid you say a word about adding pike-perch when you are on the Volga. As one reader recently wrote to us, “they’ll beat you for it.”

The common point of each recipe is a rich broth made up of several types of fish. Its historical apotheosis was “Shuvalov’s ukha”. Ivan Shuvalov was a favorite of Empress Elizaveta Petrovna and a true gourmet. He loved ukha made with an incredible amount of fish, which was cooked for three days. Once this soup was served at a palace feast, he stood up, took a gold medal. He took the imperial coin out of his pocket and carefully put it in a bowl of soup. The heavy piece did not sink, so “strong” was Shuvalov’s ukha.

Ukha is the essence of antiquity. In the 16th century there was a soup called yurma. It was made with fish and chicken. The two broths were mixed and the fish acquired a distinct chicken flavor. In central Russia, no one has heard of this soup for centuries. But in the south, in the Rostov region, he survived. “Cock ukha” is a soup still prepared in Cossack cuisine.

So how did this recipe survive? In fact, it’s quite simple, in the 15th and 16th centuries people fled south to the Don River to escape the oppression of the Tsar in Moscow. There, on the Don, they became free Cossacks. They have managed to preserve their cuisine, a magnificent monument to our gastronomic past.

Ukha with apples Pavel and Olga Syutkin

apple ukha
Pavel and Olga Syutkin

However, even today ukha can surprise us. Fish soup with milk? Many Russians find this strange. But for centuries, in our northern cuisine – in Arkhangelsk and in the sea regions – ukha is made with milk and a northern fish called navaga, a small cod similar to saffron cod (which we found in the Pacific Ocean). This ukha is similar to a Finnish soup called lohikeitto made with salmon and cream – or even a New England seafood chowder made in the USA.

In northern Russia, ukha is made with milk Pavel and Olga Syutkin

In northern Russia, ukha is made with milk
Pavel and Olga Syutkin

The Soviet period, of course, changed a lot on our table. After the construction of a cascade of hydroelectric power stations on the Volga in central Russia, the sturgeon disappeared from the rivers.

Sterlet soup – a small breed of sturgeon – was once a favorite dish of Muscovites. And today some connoisseurs will refuse to call “ukha” a fish soup made from perch, cod or pollock. After all, fish soup isn’t just a recipe, it’s a ceremony:

Heat a large iron pot of water over a fire, make a broth with small “waste” fish, such as collarette or gudgeon. When it is well cooked, remove it from the broth. Chop and throw into the boiling broth better fish or pieces of sturgeon. Add vegetables, herbs and spices. Pour the much-needed shot of vodka into the pot at the end – although some people prefer to shorten the vodka’s path to their stomach by simply drinking it. And, of course, take a sliver of smoldering wood from the fire and dip it into the pot to give it a smoky taste.

Come on, is that “just fish soup”? !

True ukha - cooked over an open fire, with a smoky flavor.  Pavel and Olga Syutkin

True ukha – cooked over an open fire, with a smoky flavor.
Pavel and Olga Syutkin

We can’t all cook fish soup outdoors. Here are two recipes to cook at home:

Don River Ukha with apples

Ingredients

  • 5 to 2 kg (3.3 to 4.4 lb) of various fish: silver carp, bream, carp, catfish, zander
  • 5 liters (2.6 pints) of water
  • 600 to 700 grams (1.3 to 1.5 lb) potatoes
  • 2 onions
  • 3 medium tomatoes
  • 2 sweet peppers
  • 2-3 apples
  • 1 hot pepper
  • 3 bay leaves
  • Herbs, salt and pepper

Preparation

  • Clean the fish, wash it and cut it into small pieces.
  • Peel the potatoes and cut them into large chunks.
  • Peel and slice the onions.
  • Remove the seeds from the peppers and cut them into julienne.
  • Grate the tomatoes.
  • Cut the apples into quarters and remove the seeds.
  • Put the potatoes and onions in a saucepan with cold water. Bring to a boil and cook for 15 minutes. Then add the fish, bring to the boil, skim off the foam and simmer for 10 minutes.
  • Add the tomatoes, bell pepper and hot pepper. Season with salt to taste. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes, then add the apples and the bay leaf.
  • Remove from the heat and stir in the herbs.
  • Let the soup rest for 15 minutes. Remove the apples from the soup. Then using a slotted spoon, take out the fish and potatoes and put them on a plate. They are served separately.

Navaga Milk Ukha

Ingredients

  • 600 grams (1.3 lb) frozen cod or saffron cod
  • 500 ml (1 pint) of water
  • 500 ml (1 pint) milk
  • 100 g (3.5 oz) onions
  • 100 g (3.5 oz) carrots
  • 30 g (1 oz) clarified butter or butter
  • Salt, pepper to taste

Preparation

  • Cut the carrots and onions into thin julienne strips and browne in melted butter until lightly browned.
  • Cut the fish into pieces – you can use fish that is not completely thawed. (Since we’ll be cooking the fish in milk, we don’t need a perfectly clear broth.)
  • Pour water into a saucepan, add milk and bring to a boil. Put the cod and the braised vegetables in the pot.
  • After boiling, simmer over low heat for 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  • Remove from the heat and let stand for 15 minutes.
  • For a real taste of the north, serve with rye kalitta (Karelian open pastries made from rye flour).
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