“Ukha” is Russian word used to name fish broth or fish soup. In this meaning it exists in the language for about 250 years or so, but before it was used for any fish or meat based soup, pea soup or sometime even sweet soup served with sugar. In the dictionary “Lexicon” published in 1704, “ukha” is defined as synonym for “gravy”.
There were three main kinds of “ukha” (soup): white one with onions, yellow – with saffron and black one – with pepper, cinnamon and cloves. During feasts and wedding receptions few different types of “ukha” were served accompanied by pirogues with various stuffing. This tradition exists to the day, except that variety of pirogues is much more limited.
With time soups with noodles, cereals, etc. have gotten their own names and word “ukha” started being used only for fish soup or both cooked without grains. Recipe of 18th century describes the following sequence of steps: “The fish should be gutted, cut in pieces and placed in a pot. Caviar and milt should be put on top of the fish. Pour water or fish broth made from small fish, add dill, parsnip, lemon, pepper and flour. Cook until tender. Serve with crumbled biscuits.”
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Over time, as new ingredients became available to Russian chefs and cooks, “ukha” recipes also changed and started varying by region. In the South (Rostov region) potatoes became a commonplace in every fish soup. In the North fish soup started being cooked in milk (boil milk, add chopped fish pieces, cook until fish is tender and serve with butter). Tomatoes became another new ingredient of fish soup. Here is the recipe from the banks of Don River: “Clean fish and place in large pot filled with water. At the boiling point add cut tomatoes to the mix. After few minutes take tomatoes out, remove skin, mash them into puree and put back into the pot. Your ukha will become of beautiful red color”.
At the end of 19th century, when French cuisine got into fashion in Russia, restaurants started serving consommé – light fish broth, however, cheap eateries frequented by working class kept serving ukha in its traditional way – rich and fatty, sometimes even with butter.
Ukha or fish soup has long history in Russian cuisine and today it is one of the traditional soups you can enjoy.
“Demyanova Ukha” by Popov Andrey Andreevich 1865
Note: Fish markets, especially in Asian neighborhoods, are good sources for bones. Many customers buy whole fish and then ask the fishmongers to fillet them, so markets often have a ready stock of fish heads and bones.
For the fish stock: Makes 2 quarts
- 3 lb. bones and trimmings of white fish (sole, turbot, whiting), cut in pieces
- 4 Tbsp. butter
- 2 leeks, white parts only, thinly sliced
- 1 yellow onion, sliced
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 bouquet garni (a classic bouquet garni consists of a spring of thyme, a bay leaf, parsley stems, and a leek leaf)
- 2 slices of lemon
- 5 black peppercorns
For the “ukha” soup:
- 2 quarts of fish stock
- 1 lb. catfish (or cod, snapper)
- 2 large potatoes, peeled, julienned
- 2 medium carrots, peeled, julienned
- 1/4 lb. baby portobello mushrooms (optional)
- 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 scallions or spring onions, chopped, for serving
- fresh dill for serving
To make a fish stock: Rinse the fish bones and trimmings under cold running water, then drain. In a saucepan, melt the butter and sweat the vegetables over low heat for a few minutes. Add the fish bones and trimming, cook gently for a few moments, and then pour in the white wine. Cook 10 minutes, then add 2 1/2 quarts cold water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, skim the surface, and add the bouquet garni and lemon. Simmer very gently for 25 minutes, skimming as necessary. 10 minutes before the end of cooking, add the peppercorns. Gently ladle the stock through a fine-mesh conical sieve.
Bring the fish stock to the boil. Stir potatoes and carrots, and cook for about 10 minutes. Add the fish and simmer for another 10-15 minutes until all vegetables soft and fish is cooked. Season to taste. Ladle the soup into warm bowls, sprinkle with scallions and fresh dill. Serve with rustic bread or homemade dinner rolls.