It is a quiet afternoon on Christmas Eve. I check on the last minute dinner preparations, turn out the lights on 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 reduces the tiny grey-blue grains into a violet hued mousse. It smells nutty and creamy at first, and then a strong almond note becomes apparent, teasing me and tempting me to dip my finger into the creamy paste to taste its sweetness.
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—in a way brings us closer together than even a phone conversation.
Kutya is in fact 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, which is an important feast in the Orthodox Christian calendar. This is illustrated by the fact that the Russian word for Christmas Eve, Sochelnik, is derived from sochivo, as kutya is known in Russian. In our generally 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 quite rich and complex, despite its simple preparation. The wheat berries have quite a wonderful aroma—creamy, milky, nutty, with a pleasant earthy undertone. The almond 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 in some ways. After all, before we can rejoice in the birth of a new dawn, we must honor and remember the dead. It feels like 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!
Ukrainian Wheat Berry, Poppyseed and Walnut Pudding (Kutya, Кутья)
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 decidedly 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 is served also with either cream or milk.
1 cup wheat berries, soaked in 6-8c of water overnight
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.)