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Kutia, an ancient Slavic ritual dish or a Polish Christmas dessert? | History and recipe

ByDaria Malinowska

Dec 7, 2022

What is it?

Kutia is a very old, ancient even, dessert that consists of cooked wheat berries and poppy seeds, dried or candied fruit, and nuts. All of the ingredients are doused in honey, and sometimes a bit of port. The consistency and texture of this dish lie somewhere between porridge and pudding. It’s dump, sticky, and very sweet.

In Poland, kutia is consumed almost exclusively as one of the twelve traditional dishes for Christmas Eve dinner. However, its roots reach the neighboring countries of Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Russia, or even further to the East!

Origins of ‘kutia’

Nobody really knows what exactly inspired the name of this dish. According to some theories, it stems from the Greek word kókkos meaning seed or a stone, or from kucie, the action of pounding the grains to obtain pearl barley. There are also authors who perceive the tradition of placing a pot with kutia during the holiday season on pokucie, so on a bench set in a corner under the icons (images of saints, not images representing programs).

Symbolism

As mentioned before, this dish is mighty old. Some estimate it to be 5000 years old, while others restrict the date of its creation to humble 1000 A.D.

Across the centuries, kutia has become something of a cultural dish and each of its ingredients gained special meaning.

In ancient times, wheat grains signified the cycle of life and resurrection. When it comes to poppy seeds, the issue is more complex as they appeared in mythology a couple of times. They were associated both with Morpheus, the god of dreams, and Demeter, the goddess of crops and fertility. Moreover, poppies supposedly grew near Lete, the river of oblivion that constituted the border between life and death.

Similar symbolism existed among Slavs. They used poppy seeds in dishes prepared for their funeral rites in hopes they would help the deceased pass from the realm of the living to the one of the dead. Simultaneously, poppies were also seen as means of protecting the crops from potential disasters. That is why people often sow them near their fields. Poppies also survived as a symbol of fertility and prosperity in, for instance, Lithuania where they are thrown with grains at brides.

Pagan dish turned Christian

But why those particular ingredients? Kutia served nowadays on Christmas Eve, actually used to be a dish associated not so much with the Christian holiday as with the winter solstice that occurs on December 22. It was one of the four festivals of the dead for the Slavs, hence the obligatory presence of the symbols of life and death.

As always, in an attempt to repel paganism and retell the story of kutia, Christian tradition adopted this dessert and created a legend in which the Virgin Mary ate kutia on the day of Jesus’s birth: the grains became symbolically linked to Jesus who, like them, was “born again” in the spring. Moreover, it is also believed that poppies bloomed at Golgotha, in places where Christ’s blood dropped.

Customs

The consumption of kutia is something of a ritual. Surprisingly, it should be consumed as the first dish during Christmas Eve dinner. Though not haphazardly, but in a specific manner.

The first person to take a spoonful from the bowl should be the head of the family. Then, the bowl goes from hand to hand. In the end, some people leave the rest of the dish for the deceased family members, while others leave just a small amount.

There’s also a curious way to “test” the quality of kutia and read from it about your future. Namely, if it is thick and rich enough, it should stick to the ceiling. If it does, then the year will be plentiful and full of successes. If it doesn’t, some serious hardships may appear.

Variations

There are numerous variations of kutia. Apart from the eastern neighbors of Poland, also many Balkan and Middle Eastern countries have their own versions.

Kolivo, for instance, is a very thick version eaten in Bulgaria, Serbia (Koljivo), Romania (Coliva), and Greece (Kollyva). In those places, the more usual ingredients such as boiled wheat, nuts, and raisins are often mixed with sesame seeds, pomegranate, or even parsley!

In Syria, a kutia-like dish is called sliha or burbara. There are also ameh, masslouk and snuniye from Lebanon and Jordan.

Recipe

This dessert is very versatile. It is basically a next-level porridge. For this reason, treat this recipe as an exemplary way of how you could execute this dish. Don’t be afraid to change things up.

Ingredients:

  • 250 g of wheat berries
  • 250 g of poppy seeds
  • 100 g of almonds
  • 75 g of walnuts
  • 70 g of raisins
  • 30 g of dried cranberries
  • 2 tbsp of candied orange peel (optional)
  • 200 ml of honey
  • a bit of buttermilk (optional, if the final mixture is too dry)

Preparation:

  1. First and foremost, you have to prepare the wheat a day before you plan to cook kutia. Pour hot water into a pot over the wheat berries and leave them to soak for 24 hours. On the following day, strain it, transfer it into a pot and cover with water again. Put the pot on a stove and cook on low heat for about an hour or until the wheat becomes soft. You can add more water during cooking if necessary. Next, strain the wheat and leave it to cool down.
  2. Subsequently, rinse the poppy seeds and boil them on medium heat in milk for about 35-40 minutes. Strain them and grind the cooked poppy seeds in a meat grinder on a fine mesh. To achieve the perfect texture, you will probably need to do it 2 or 3 times.
  3. Now it’s time roast the nuts in a dry pan, and chop them up together with the dried fruits.
  4. Finally, add all of the ingredients to the soft wheat and mix thoroughly with a spatula. If the mixture is too dry, add a drop of buttermilk.
  5. If you dare, you can now test the quality of your kutia, according to the custom. May the odds be ever in your favor!

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