Ukha: Russia’s Oldest Soup

By May 19, 2011September 19th, 2019Cuisine, Uncategorized

There are two ways to make Russia’s oldest soup, ukha.

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The first way (and the way I first experienced it on the shores of Lake Baikal in 1990) goes like this: catch a fish in a crystal clear lake or river.  Throw it into a kettle of the crystal clear water and boil until the eyes pop out.  That’s how you know it’s done.  Consume immediately.  And that’s it.

Which is fine if you happen to be on the shores of a crystal clear river, know how catch a fish, and can make a fire in the wilderness.  But if one of these prerequisites is missing, fear not!   You don’t have to go all the way to Siberia, learn to fish, or even work up the courage to deal with a fish eye.  It is, however, a good idea to make friends with your local fishmonger, if you haven’t already, for help in sourcing the freshest fish possible for your version of ukha.

Ukha has been around for centuries, and like all Russian dishes, has changed and adapted in the kitchens (and riversides) where it is prepared.   Ukha comes from the word “ukho,” the Russian word for ear, which is odd since fish don’t have ears.    Ukha originally had nothing to do with fish, but was rather a thick, rich stock made from the leftover parts of cows and pigs, including the ears, the feet, the sinews, and other trimmings.   The word ukha became synonymous with “bouillon” and ultimately with the simple broth and fish soup popular with both peasants and nobles alike.

Chucking fresh fish into boiling water is not so much a recipe, as a method of cooking, but ukha was re-imagined and tweaked throughout the centuries.  At the Tsar’s table, “amber” ukha, redolent with precious saffron strands, was made with perch or sturgeon.  The French chefs working in Russian noble kitchens concentrated on perfecting the flavor and appearance of the bouillon itself, clarifying it with egg whites and eggshells and experimenting with different kinds of fish.   Some Russian chefs insist upon the addition of potatoes and root vegetables, whilst others vehemently protest that anything but fish and water make the concoction no longer ukha, but genertic fish soup.  I’ve heard violent arguments about whether or not to add lemon slices, and some heated discussions as to how many different kinds of fish you can use for ukha.  There are many fish in the sea, and many recipes for ukha.

So, if you are not bound for Siberia, or if you aren’t an accomplished reelsman or woman, but you’d like to try ukha, a recipe culled from numerous stories, cookbooks, advice from Russian fishermen, and a little sage input from my friend the fishmonger follows:

Ingredients:

2 liters of Fish Stock (recipe below)

750 grams of scaled and deboned white fish such as pike, perch, halibut, cubed (5 centimeter pieces)

750 grams of salmon fillet, cubed (5 centimeter pieces)

½ of a parsley root or turnip, cubed (2 centimeter pieces)

½ a celery root, cubed (2 centimeter pieces)

1 tsp of olive oil

2 leeks or one large yellow onion

1-2 bay leaves

15 allspice pellets

4 Tbls of Malden sea salt

1 Tbls of black peppers

1 bunch of flat parsley

1 bunch of dill

Lemon slices (if you dare!) for garnish

Instructions:

1. Sweat the leeks or onions in oil in a heavy bottomed soup pot on moderate heat.

2. When the leeks and onions are soft and translucent, add the parsley and celery root cubes and sauté until tender (5-7 minutes)

3. Add the fish stock, bay leaves, allspice, salt and pepper.  Raise heat and bring to a boil.

4. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

5. Add the fish, poaching it lightly at low heat for 7-8 minutes.

6. Remove the bay leaves and add chopped fresh parsley and dill.

7. Serve immediately.  Russians traditionally serve ukha with rastigai or fish pies, and it is the traditional accompaniment to Salmon Coulibiac.

Fish Stock:

I am a great believer in fresh stock made from natural ingredients, which is far superior than prepared and processed cubes or tinned broths, which introduce too much salt and a chemical taste that has no place in a fresh soup like ukha.  Whenever possible, take the time to make fresh stock, and while it isn’t essential to clarify it, nothing looks better than a clear, sparkling broth to showcase the delicately poached fish and the brilliant green garnish.

Ingredients:

2 fish heads, gills and eyes removed (here is where your friend the fishmonger can be so helpful!)

2 liters of water

1 stalk of celery

½ a yellow onion

2 Tbls Malden sea salt

1 Tbl of black peppercorns

3 crushed cloves

Trimmings of fresh herbs (keep these in a plastic bag in the freezer): parsley, dill, scallions, tarragon etc.

3 egg whites and eggshells

Instructions:

1. Place all the ingredients except the eggs and eggshells into a heavy, deep-bottomed stockpot.

2.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer on low heat for 1 hour, skimming the surface of any scum, which has accumulated.

3. Remove from the heat.

4.  Line a colander with fresh cheesecloth or a clean linen kitchen towel and strain the bouillon into a clean stockpot.

At this point, you can stop, but if you wish to clarify the stock, proceed as follows:

1. Replace the stockpot onto moderate heat and bring to a simmer.

2. Whisk the egg whites together with one cup of the hot stock and then pour the mixture into the stockpot.

3. Add the crushed eggshells and stir for four minutes.

4. Reduce heat and slide the stockpot to the left so that only the left third of the pot covers the burner and let simmer for ten minutes. As the egg whites cook, the cloudy matter of the stock adheres to them.

5. Rotate the stockpot around to allow the other side of the pot to cover the burner and let simmer ten minutes.  Do the same to the top and bottom of the pot, taking care that the stock does not boil over.

6. Remove the pot from the heat.   Line a fine sieve with cheesecloth or a clean linen dishcloth over a tall stockpot.  Ladle the stock and egg mixture carefully through the sieve, taking care that the bottom of the sieve does not touch the clarified stock.

Priyatnogo Appetita!

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This article first appeared in french under the title “Oukha, la mere des soupes russes.” in Le Figaro and La Russie d’Aujourd’hui on May 16, 2011.  A link to that online article can be found here.

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Hey There Readers!

Sorry for the radio silence, but it is not an indication of a lack of interest in blogging!  We’re working hard on a major overhaul: introducing new material, launching a new blog and all kinds of new and interesting developments!  So stick with it!

Question to the cooks in the group:  what other Russian recipes interest you?  Been longing to make something you read about?  Log in and let us know and we’ll plan some new columns around it!

5 Comments

  • Marilyn says:

    Mushrooms, mushrooms, and mushrooms!!!

  • Marilyn:
    I quite agree. Noted.
    Jennifer

  • Dear Jennifer
    This is the first time I have read a BLOG online and I am only doing so because I have become a total fan of your blogs when I read them on PAPER preferably in the bathtub! So far my favorite ones of all are your cogitations about raising Velvet, especially your indifferent parenting. What a breath of fresh air! I guess you will always blame yourself for every blue ribbon she brings in and her eventual mastery at Madison Square Garden and the Olympics!
    Your most recent thoughts on UKHA is as usual very amusing: Boil them until their eyes pop out. WAY GROSS! Not liking fish all that much I read this more quickly than the others I savored. Here here to your Imperial Russia! Most definitely write a piece about the actual Royal Wedding and your Princess Diana knock off rings, and serving tea and scones at 3 am!
    By the way: I bet you did not know this, oh wise knower of everything imperial:
    Turns out that a Malibu friend of mine spent a solid YEAR setting up a royal meeting with Cate and Will AND non other than my so-called pal (!) Arnie. Then the ex governator confessed his truly horrible transgressions re the love child who was pretty much raised in his house under Maria’s innocent nose. My Malibu buddy was in NEW YORK getting all the final plans he had worked so hard on when he heard the news. Naturally Will and Cate have made OTHER plans and will not be going to California to meet the terminator dude after all. A year’s worth of work down the drain for my pal. Whew…. Talk about 6 degrees of separation!
    But back to Russian Soup and Velvet and all that is Jennifer. Here are some blog requests: I want to hear any and everything you have to say about raising your Velvet, about the different mothering styles between you and your younger sister, and your thoughts on Russia NOW 17 years later as compared to your initial adoration of the Mother Land when you were majoring in Russian History in the Big Apple.
    You are a remarkable writer.
    As I said, being on computer is usually considered WORK to me but in this case I relented so I could read your latest.
    Best wishes from your greatest fan,
    Nancy B

  • Greg says:

    Ha, Americans definitely have an aversion to eyes in food. This is quite the recipe. Two liters of stock! And lemon slices? I do dare!

  • Live dangerously, Greg. Live dangerously!

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