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