Ukha – Russian Fisherman Soup

Equally loved by Ivan the Terrible and the poorest of peasants, this simple soup could be a clear fish broth or a thick stew. Or anything in between, for that matter, as long as a fish swam through it at some point. Initially, during Ivan the Terrible’s times, it was a clear broth, sometimes meat-based, and sometimes fish-based, served with famous Russian meat and fish pies, rasstegai and kulebyaki.  Tzar Ivan, the first Russian monarch who promoted himself from a Grand Prince to a Tzar of All Russia, was not so terrible at first. Actually, the label “terrible” is an inaccurate translation of Grozny, which means formidable, awe-inspiring, or courageous. He definitely was all that, climbing the throne at the age of 16 and eventually conquering and consolidating a huge Russian empire.

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In some ways, though, he was truly terrible; he had a terrible temper. In one of those rages, he accidentally killed his son, as depicted in the famous painting by I. Repin. To atone for his sins, the Tzar became fanatically religious. He would abstain from meat not only during Lent, as prescribed, but also during self-appointed fasts. You could say that Ivan the Terrible was the first pescatarian. As  a result, meat-based ukha was fazed out, and the clear fish-based ukha became the trend.

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Peasants loved it for a different reason. With dearth of meat and fowl, fish was still plentiful in rivers and lakes, and free! Thus from a royal table, ukha relocated to a simple kotelok, a cooking pot rounded on the bottom hanging over the fire. From a clear broth complementing an array of fancy pies, it became a stew filled with any root vegetables on hand: the ubiquitous Russian potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, onions,  –  whatever they could dig up.  Enhanced by the smoky flavor from the bonfire, it was filling, nutritious, and totally scrumptious, I can tell you from first-hand experience! 

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The most important rule for a really rich and flavorful ukha is to cook the head and bones. In fact, you’ll see ukha recipes that include only fish heads. My grandmother, however, interpreted ukha as a fish chaulent, a Shabbos stew, so she cooked actual pieces of fish in it as well. As you see, the head of this Hog Snapper was huge, so I knew my ukha would come out full of flavor.

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This is one scary-looking fish!  I am glad he is going into the pot, to be rendered harmless. I used all the flesh of it for ceviche (please click here),  which left me the head, tail, skin, and bones. If you are concerned about the bones, you can wrap them in cheesecloth before placing them into the pot.However, I still remember sucking on those bones as a childhood treat.

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You can use any root vegetables you like. I prefer the traditional onion, potato, turnip, carrot, beet, and celery combination.  Well, celery is on the fancy side for peasant Russia, but it lends a nice flavor.

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There is an ongoing argument as to what goes into the pot first, fish or veggies.  I’ve heard some fishermen say that if you start with vegetables hoping to catch some fish, the fish will laugh at you! However, I still prefer to start with veggies because I like them really soft, especially beets, carrots, and turnip. I cut them all into bite size pieces and start cooking. Once the water boils, I add fish.  At this point I transfer it to a crock pot, but you can reduce heat to simmer and continue cooking stove top.

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It’s time to season my ukha with salt and pepper, peppercorns, garlic and bay leaf.  But there is one more vital ingredient, without which no ukha is complete. It is so important that there is a song about it.

The celebrated La Scala trained Russian dramatic baritone Muslim Magomaev is singing a folk song Vdol’ po Piterskoy (Along Piterskaya Street), which includes lyrics beseeching the good woman to take pity, cook ukha,  and not to forget parsley!

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In addition to lots of parsley, as the song demands, I also use some diced tomatoes and lemon juice. Purists will call it a deviation, and it’s true; Russian peasants definitely did not have tomatoes and have never seen lemons. But it contributes such a pleasant sour note that I still do it! Add it at the very end, so as not to lose the fresh look and flavor.

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Here it is, and it was totally delicious and full of goodness!

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 whole fish or fish heads and bones, about 1 1/2  – 2 lbs total
  • 1 medium potato
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 medium beet
  • 1 medium turnip (alternatively,  parsnip or parsley root)
  • 1 celery stalk
  • 2 – 3 large garlic cloves, diced
  • 4 -5 whole bay leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon peppercorns
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup diced tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup fresh coarsely chopped parsley and more to garnish.

PROCEDURE

  • Peel all vegetables, cube into 1/3 inch (1 sq cm) pieces, place into 6 -quart pot, add water. Bring to boil.
  • Clean, scale, wash and cut fish, add to pot, bring to boil, transfer to crock pot set on low or reduce heat to simmer if cooking stove top.
  • Add garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns. Season with salt and pepper.
  • Before serving, add lemon juice, diced tomato, parsley. Cook for 5 more minutes.
  • Serve garnished with parsley.

Enjoy!

 

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23 Comments Add yours

  1. I love this recipe Dolly.Yumm.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much – I am glad you like it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This looks super delicious and comforting. I love such soups. Loved reading a bit of history behind the origin of this dish 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, dear Mona! It’s also so easy to make.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Very much like Scandinavian fish soups (won’t be making this one, but I always read your posts anyway). The vegan alternative is good with anything fermented (well, vegetables, sauerkraut works best) and celeriac. And caraway if you like it (I love caraway but my husband says it smells like dirty socks).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the origin of it was Scandinavian, since Tzar Ivan ousted the Scandinavian Rurik dynasty, and ukha had been on the menu when he was growing up. Poor orphan, a severely emotionally disabled child! No wonder he had those temper tantrums later on in life. (I agree with your husband re: caraway).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Dolly you often add some unusual ingredients to traditional dishes, and they do make the difference! This time it’s lemon and tomatoes. – must try! How about a shot of vodka? Some people splash it into ukha too!

    Oh, and thank you very much for the extra treat – video clip with so much loved Muslim Magomaev!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I know about adding vodka but we are not vodka drinkers, and we don’t even have it in the house. We have rum, but I didn’t think rum would be good for it. Do you remember fresh pike from the Teterev river? That was a sweet and delicious ukha!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I bet it was, but I would not know because my grandma never cooked fish – she just could not stand the smell of it.

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      2. I am sorry you missed out on such a treat! In Odessa, we mostly made ukha during the summer at the dacha, with fish that my father would catch early in the morning, before going to work. Since we also had huge and juicy “Fontanskiye” tomatoes, that’s how tomato made its way into my recipe. Lemon is a much later addition, from Sukhumi.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Is not it amazing how food and cooking bring back memories?

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      4. Psychology recognizes that food is comfort, so it brings back “comfortable” memories.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Fish soup is one of my favourites. Next time I’ll try it your way. Thanks Dolly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Myra, coming from you, it’s a great compliment!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. payel says:

    Lovely soup idea…loveed it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I am glad you like it!

      Like

  7. laurayinmay says:

    Will Mackerel be ok for this soup?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sure, any fish is ok, and mackerel is great.

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  8. Great blog👍, do visit my blog and if you like it then press the follow button.
    Thank you😊

    Like

    1. Interesting blog! Thank you for your kind comment, and best wishes to you,
      Dolly

      Liked by 1 person

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