Ukrainian Wheat Berry and Poppyseed Pudding Recipe (Kutya, Kutia)

Wheat and poppyseeds

It is a quiet afternoon on Christmas Eve. I check on the last minute dinner preparations, light up the Christmas tree and take out my old mortar and pestle. Although I know that the food processor will be much faster and easier, there is something special about doing things the old way. As I pound the poppyseeds, the rhythmic movement of the pestle transforms the tiny grey-blue grains into a violet hued mousse. The aroma is nutty at first, then milky and sweet, like fresh marzipan. I want to dip my finger into the creamy paste; it must taste as delicious as it smells.

It takes all of my willpower to resist because on Orthodox Christmas Eve, the Advent fast can only be broken when the first star rises. Instead I continue to work, my body is here in this messy apartment—I still need to clean up before the evening feast—but my mind is with my grandmother on the other side of the ocean who has probably done the same thing earlier today. Kutya—or kutia, kolivo, colivă, koliva, sochivo, as this wheatberry pudding with poppyseeds is known in different parts of Eastern Europe—brings us closer together than any modern means of communication.

Kutya is a very simple dish of boiled grains dressed with nuts, dried fruit and honey, but its rustic simplicity belies its powerful symbolic meaning of fertility and abundance. It is a central dish of Svyata Vecherya, the Holy Supper, an important feast in the Orthodox Christian calendar. Just consider that the Russian word for Christmas Eve, Sochelnik, is derived from sochivo, as kutya is known in Russian. In our non-religious family, it was one of the few ritual dishes made every Christmas and Easter. Yet, it is not surprising that kutya survived 70 years of the atheist communist rule; its roots go back to the antiquity, and a similar preparation called kollyba is mentioned in the times of ancient Byzantium.

The flavor of kutya is complex thanks to an array of nuts and grains. The wheat berries have a wonderful aroma—creamy, milky, nutty, with a pleasant earthy undertone. The almond-like sweetness of poppyseeds, married with that of honey and raisins, lends kutya a warm, rich character, while a generous addition of walnuts makes the taste dark and full-bodied.

As we partake of kutya on Christmas Eve, we first offer some to those who are no longer with us. Christmas Eve is a bittersweet observance–before we can rejoice in the birth of a new dawn, we must honor and remember the dead. It is a meal during which the shadows of our ancestors hover nearby. Tomorrow, it will be a new day, a day of joy and happiness, of family visits and calls, of breaking the fast and eating fat, juicy vareniki (pierogi) with cheese and potatoes. I am sure that when I call my grandmother, the first thing she will ask, “Did you make kutya the way I usually make it?” Yes, babushka, I did!

Wheat, walnut and poppyseeds  Ukrainian embroidery Kutya kutia

Ukrainian Wheat Berry, Poppyseed and Walnut Pudding (Kutya, Кутя)

Although in Ukraine kutya is a festive dish, rarely served during other times of the year, I love it as a filling and nutritious breakfast. In different regions of Ukraine and Russia, other types of grains are used for kutya such as rice, pearled barley, or buckwheat, but wheat remains the most popular. I still remember the creamy, delicate taste of rice kutya with cherry compote, which was made by my grandmother’s aunt. Although nontraditional, the addition of almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios or fresh berries (blueberries, raspberries) is very delicious.

Since the Christmas Eve meal still has to observe the rules of the 40 day Advent fast during which no meat products or dairy are allowed, kutya on this day is made as I describe in the recipe below. At other times, it can be served with either cream or milk, and such kutya is called bagata (rich).

1 cup wheat berries, soaked in 6-8c of water overnight
1/4c poppyseeds
1/4c walnuts, chopped
1/4c raisins, soaked in warm water till plump
1/4c honey mixed with 1/4c water, bring to boil and cool

Simmer wheat in the water in which was soaked on low heat till soft, which usually takes 2-4h. Add additional water if necessary to keep wheat berries covered. Once done, the berries will be soft and pleasantly chewy. Season with salt and keep covered.

Cover poppyseeds with boiling water and drain. Repeat. Grind in a blender or by using mortar and pestle to crush the seeds and release their fragrance. Drain excess water from the wheat berries. Stir poppyseeds, walnuts and raisins into the cooked wheat berries. Sweeten with honey syrup to taste and serve either warm or cold. Sochivo keeps well in the refrigerator for at least a week.

Spiced Fruit Compote Variation: in my family, we eat kutya by thinning it with the liquid from dried fruit compote (called uzvar in Ukrainian). It is one of my favorite Christmas morning breakfast dishes. Cover 2c of mixed dried fruit (apricots, prunes, cherries, apples and pears are traditional) with 4c water , add 1 clove, ½ star anise and 1 tiny cinnamon bark sliver (spices are optional and can be varied), bring to boil and simmer on low heat for 15-30min. Add honey or sugar to taste and then let cool. Instead of sweetening kutya with honey syrup, add the liquid from the compote. Fruit can be eaten separately.

Photography © Bois de Jasmin (embroidery is done by my great grandmother.)

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45 Comments

  • hongkongmom: this sounds like a delicious, fragrant soulfood. i love the way u have written about it and it warms me up. January 7, 2011 at 1:55am Reply

  • Olfactoria: I gave that to my (Ukrainian) mother-in-law, she was delighted and wants me to give you a virtual hug! :) Merry Christmas, V! January 7, 2011 at 2:48am Reply

  • Lindaloo: Aah kutya. Warm and wonderful start to Christmas Eve dinner. Thick and scrumptious eaten cold on Christmas morning. No raisins in ours though. Maybe Mom always used them up preparing the incredibly dark and rich Christmas cake with its masses of fruit and nuts and bit of chocolatey batter that she stirrred up in a huge enamel bowl.
    Merry Christmas! January 7, 2011 at 3:48am Reply

  • Marina: Murashki po kozhe, so beatifully written. January 7, 2011 at 7:49am Reply

  • Marsha: I so love these posts! January 7, 2011 at 8:25am Reply

  • Victoria: It is very delicious! I always looked forward to Christmas for eating kutya. Earthy, satisfying in many ways. January 7, 2011 at 10:05am Reply

  • Victoria: Wish her Merry Christmas from me!
    Today it is snowing here, so I got my white Christmas after all. So happy! January 7, 2011 at 10:06am Reply

  • Victoria: Merry Christmas! Your cake sounds delicious and decadent! I love the combination of chocolate and dried fruit.
    Did you eat your kutya with uzvar too? I know that it is made in many different ways in different parts of Ukraine. January 7, 2011 at 10:08am Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you for your kind words, Marina! January 7, 2011 at 10:09am Reply

  • Victoria: Marsha, thank you. It was an enjoyable post to write. January 7, 2011 at 10:09am Reply

  • sweetlife: This one was especially lovely, V. Thanks for letting us be there with you while you worked. And I love hearing about a cuisine I know so little about, and yet feels vaguely familiar to me from the Ashkenazi culinary traditions (what little of them survived my family’s trek to Idaho). That’s probably the first time I’ve thought of pierogi as joyful, but I will do so henceforth. January 7, 2011 at 10:28am Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you so much, A! You know, I recently bought a book by Claudia Rodden on Jewish cuisine, mostly because I know so little about it, yet the Jewish presence was very strong in Ukraine. As I read the book, I was so delighted to discover many of the familiar dishes as part of the Ashkenazi heritage. After all, many of our dearest family friends were Jewish, and my uncle married into a Jewish family. I was very little then, but I still remember the flavors vividly.

    Did you see this piece on NPR about pierogi?
    http://www.npr.org/2011/01/02/132486850/in-orthodox-churches-christmas-means-pierogies January 7, 2011 at 10:40am Reply

  • Olfactoria: Aww, I am glad for you. :) January 7, 2011 at 12:43pm Reply

  • Shelley Ferguson: Thank you for the treats, visual and in formula (aka recipe).

    I do love the way rituals can connect us across miles and through time. I can imagine the pestle crushing your ingredients, and the physical motion allowing both olfactory and muscle memory to carry you over and back.

    As a side note, I love to use a mortar and pestle, and a molcajete. I’m not particularly adept, mind you–peppercorns have been known to take flight, for example–but since I transitioned out of frantic life, I find that keeping them out on the counter is in itself a visual reminder that pausing, and labor, and reward, are all something to be as savored as the food they can help create.

    Wishing you a most wonderful holiday. January 7, 2011 at 12:46pm Reply

  • Victoria: I love snow time to time, esp when I don't have to go anywhere. Today it is picture perfect–big, fluffy snowflakes! :) January 7, 2011 at 12:47pm Reply

  • Anna in Edinburgh: That’s a lovely and moving post. Thank you. January 7, 2011 at 1:10pm Reply

  • Victoria: Shelley, how beautifully you put it! I have about 5 different mortars and pestles, and I use two on regular basis to crush a small amount of spice or garlic cloves (hence, two separate ones to make sure my cardamom chai does not taste of garlic.) There is definitely something very familiar and satisfying about using the old cooking tool. Plus, it releases the aromas really well, since it crushes spices thoroughly. And for small amounts, it is def a time saver–it takes less time to clean a mortar than to wash a food processor. January 7, 2011 at 2:57pm Reply

  • Victoria: Anna, thank you so much. I love the holidays above all for these kinds of traditions. January 7, 2011 at 2:59pm Reply

  • Eau-De-Mode: Смачноi кутi! Христос народився! ) January 7, 2011 at 3:29pm Reply

  • Victoria: Славімо його! Вам теж і усіх благ земних! January 7, 2011 at 3:48pm Reply

  • aotearoa: That was beautiful to read and I am going to get my mortar and pestle and make this for a celebration breakfast. I could smell it as I read! January 7, 2011 at 6:22pm Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you for your lovely words! I hope that you will enjoy it too. I love the flavor of poppyseeds in all preparations, from bagels to poppyseed rolls. It is so rich, almondy, sweet and somehow haunting. January 7, 2011 at 7:59pm Reply

  • Natalie: Kutya is one of my all-time favorite foods! In my family we make two versions: 1. poor man’s, aka black kutya, which pretty much follows your recipe (although we grind the poppyseeds in a special grinder and don’t put in raisins or walnuts) and 2. rich man’s, or white kutya, made with rice, almonds, golden raisins, and white sugar. They’re both delicious, but the poor man’s is truly addictive (maybe it’s that little hit of opiates from the poppyseeds?!). January 7, 2011 at 11:15pm Reply

  • Victoria: Natalie, do you just boil the rice in water? And then do you just add sliced almonds and other ingredients?

    My mother’s family is from Poltava, so I knew just one version. When I came to the US and met Ukrainians from different regions, especially the Western ones, I was amazed to discover many unusual, interesting preparations. I once tried a kutya like dish with poppyseeds, where the wheat was replaced with pieces of baked dough (bobalki.) January 8, 2011 at 10:39am Reply

  • kali_ma: I am eating Kutya leftover for breakfast, as i write this. This, and Koloch, (Fancy egg Bread) Are the elements of the Xmas, and Easter dinner that affirm my connection to my Baba, and my Hutsul Heritage. I love how you have written this article, its voice reflects a passion for Ukrainian tradition, that echos my own. My Babas Kutya, has walnuts, poppy seed, honey,and wheat, but no fruit. The non Slavic guests, who have tried Kutya, have a reported having a hard time with the texture, as there is no North American equivalent texture, they can think of. The offering of the kutya to the ancestors, was part of the ritual surrounding the meal. Baba taught that it is the * blessing* food. January 8, 2011 at 3:11pm Reply

  • Victoria: This was the first year that I baked kolach. My grandmother never baked it (but she baked kulich/paska for Easter, which is similar.) I have a friend from Lviv, who taught me how to make it in a braided shape. We had some this morning, and I am very glad that I’ve tried it.

    Wheat berries definitely have an unusual texture, soft, yet chewy. I guess, it is an acquired taste in some way, although my non-Ukrainian husband likes kutya as much as I do.

    When you are so far away from home, all of these traditions are precious. Thank you so much for sharing your story too. Reading these comments makes my holiday even more festive. January 8, 2011 at 3:57pm Reply

  • sweetlife: Oh, Claudia Roden’s book is a crazy, obsessive masterpiece! I so admire her methodology, her personal passion and it’s exhaustive reach. My god, what a project. You know she had to write three or four other cookbooks just to support the completion of that one? It would have driven me mad just to contemplate the effort… January 8, 2011 at 7:45pm Reply

  • Victoria: I had no idea, but now I appreciate the book even more. The breadth and the scope are mindblowing. I also enjoyed different sections on Jewish communities and customs as much as I did the recipes. Roden is impressive in the way she manages to write the recipes–they are so easy to follow and never too wordy, but comprehensive nonetheless.

    Another book on a similar subject that I love and would take with me, if I were forced to keep only 10 cookbook (may that day never come; my cookbook collection exceeds my fragrance collection, if you can imagine) is Maggie Glezer's A Blessing of Bread. It is a recipe collection of different breads and baked goods from different Jewish traditions. It includes even my beloved Bukharian non toki, a thin, crisp matzo like flatbread with cumin seeds. January 8, 2011 at 8:01pm Reply

  • sweetlife: Will have to check this one out, V! Before perfume I was all about food and cooking. I sort of took a break in the first flush of my new passion, but now I find myself coming back to it in a new way… January 9, 2011 at 7:45pm Reply

  • Victoria: I think that you will enjoy it, if you liked Roden's book. It has the same spirit, the same careful and sensitive research. I am very impressed by it. January 9, 2011 at 8:26pm Reply

  • Natalie: We steam the rice, then soak it in almond milk made from the blanched almonds (with the addition of one bitter almond for flavor); the raisins are added in as is.

    My grandparents lived in Kiev but were of Russian descent, so who knows what admixture of recipes ours are… I’ve never tried other versions, and I’m not sure I could ever bring myself to! Although I did save some black kutya in the freezer from Christmas, so I might just try your walnut addition, which sounds fantastic. January 9, 2011 at 10:02pm Reply

  • Victoria: Natalie, thank you so much for explaining! I will definitely try the rice and almond milk version. It really sounds like a very elegant dish. In the Russian 19th century cookbooks I have, almond milk is often mentioned in this context. I usually make either almond or poppyseed milk (the latter is my favorite) to eat with kasha or kissel during the Lenten days. January 9, 2011 at 10:12pm Reply

  • hp@charlespenman.com: Dear Victoria,

    I just stumbled upon this post; what a beautifully descriptive explanation of Ukrainian Sviat Vechir traditions. Our group carries on the tradition however, I have not attempted kutya but now, with your recipe, I will try it next year!

    I especially love the small rituals of setting a place of honor for all the dearly departed, placing a candle in the window as an invitation to any person to join in the celebration and my favorite, mixing a spoonful of kutya into the feed of the animals because they hold a place of reverance.

    We used to place a handful of hay under the white tablecloth to symbolize the manger but my favorite memory was that of walking the priest to his home, after Midnight Mass, and serenading him with Christmas carols in the light of the winter moon and then hearing the crunch of the snow under our boots because it was always so cold. Thank you for conjuring up some very lovely memories and Happy New Year!

    Halyna January 19, 2011 at 4:42pm Reply

  • Victoria: Dear Halyna, thank you so much for your comment and for sharing your memories. I really love learning more about these traditions, so that I can retain them myself in my family. Even something as simple as makimg kutya keeps me closer to those I love, whether they here or far away. Your own story has touched me and I could envision the smells and sounds… Thank you.
    Happy New Year to you and lots of warm wishes! January 19, 2011 at 9:44pm Reply

  • Pieni_lintunen: i am so amazed and touched. have just discovered your blog recently and was reading backwards, trying to find reviews of parfumes, which might interest me.
    and then this post comes. it is written beautifully and made me feel ashamed that i do not get kutia for Christmas Eve unless I visit my mother in Kiev. have to be more brave and start cooking it myself.

    thank you very much! January 22, 2011 at 5:16pm Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you for your nice comment! I am so happy to read it, as I was to share my experiences about following these old traditions. For this reason, the thoughts that you and others have shared are very special to me. I am very glad that post resonated with you.

    Kutya is very easy to make, and I am sure that it will come out perfectly once you try it! January 22, 2011 at 11:38pm Reply

  • Vera: I stumbled on your entry and recipe as I searched for a kutya recipe I could make this year. In the past, my mom made the kutya every year but she is gone and sadly, I never got her recipe for it.

    We eat kutya very differently: it is make from wheat berries, yes, but after they are cooked they are ground with sugar and walnuts (no poppy seeds) and made into a coarse, thick…paste? dry risotto? dry oatmeal?? Hard to describe the texture and while the recipes I found online are *close*, they are definitely not what we had at Christmas Eve dinner. Like you, we moistened it with the syrup of stewed fruits. But the kutya was served as dessert, at room temperature and the fruit stew was cool. And we never ate it at breakfast like cereal since the consistency was very thick.

    How interesting all the variations of this recipe.
    I understand that the version my mom made is also served to mourners at the gravesite as a thanks for attending the service.
    Thank you for posting the recipe, I will give it a try and hope it works. December 22, 2012 at 12:31am Reply

  • Marusia: I also stumbled upon your post while trying to find a recipe for kutya. It was always my favorite part of the Christmas Eve dinner and now that my own mother is gone, it’s time for me to prepare it. Since I often loved to watch my mother and grandmother prepare festive dishes, I kind of absorbed the recipes by osmosis, but wanted to see what was on the web just to make sure. My family was from Halychyna, but our kutya was pretty much identical to yours. I’m the one in my family who thought to put some uzvar over the kutya!
    Thank you, 3 years later, for such a beautiful and evocative post. It sent me back to my childhood and the scents and warmth of my mother’s kitchen before Christmas. December 22, 2013 at 10:28am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Marusia. I really enjoyed hearing your story, and I’m very happy that the recipe came in handy. There is nothing like food to feel connected to your roots. At least, that’s what I find to be more and more true. December 22, 2013 at 6:41pm Reply

  • Dariа: Why is the word “Russian” even mentioned in this article if its for a Ukrainian food?!? Ukraine, not only has its own language, but it predates the Russian one. December 23, 2013 at 10:16pm Reply

    • Victoria: To explain a tradition that Ukrainians share with Russians as with many other Eastern Europeans (and Greeks, Armenians, Lebanese, etc.) December 24, 2013 at 4:15am Reply

      • Marusia: I do think it’s time that we Ukrainians let go of the age old animosity with Russians. It serves no one. I applaud your decision, Victoria. January 9, 2014 at 3:05pm Reply

  • Cathy: Quick question: How many servings is your recipe for Kutya? Thanks! January 8, 2014 at 3:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: 4 servings. For a big family, it’s best to cook 2 cups of wheat and double the rest of the recipe. January 9, 2014 at 3:44am Reply

      • Cathy: Thank you! January 10, 2014 at 2:47am Reply

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