Whether it’s Kutia or Kutya (pronounced coo-tcha), it’s probably one of the most seminal Ukrainian dishes. It’s also one of the most time consuming.
The history of kutia
Kutia is a Christmas Eve dish but – in reality – its roots have very little to do with Christmas. So, let’s travel back a few thousand years to the Ukraine. What was going on? Growing wheat. So, they boiled the wheat.
But, it’s so much more than just boiled wheat. Ukrainians (and everyone nearby) celebrated the winter solstice before they adopted Christianity in 997 AD. Kutia is the centrepiece of this winter solstice dinner that was adapted into what is now the Christmas Eve meal: Sviata Vechera.
This recipe saves the overnight soaking time plus 2 hours of cooking time over the traditional recipe!
Jump straight to the recipe
The quick story on Sviata Vechera is that it’s a twelve-dish meal of meatless dishes (but fish is included). Ukrainian Catholics and Orthodox followers would tell you that the 12 dishes symbolize the 12 apostles. But, in pre-Christian/pagan terms, the dishes may also represent the 12 moons of the year. The first of the twelve dishes is kutia.
Looking for a gluten-free alternative? Check out my recipe for Instant Pot Gluten-Free Traditional Kutia made with oat groats.
Along with the boiled wheat, you add honey (мед, “med”) which is said to represent good fortune or the spirit of Christ.
Based on how often мед comes up in Duolingo’s Ukrainian lessons, it’s a word that’s just as important as borscht.
The poppy seeds (мак, “mak”) represent fertility. My baba, naturally, grew her own poppies in her garden. The non-opiate kind! The quantity needed here makes it most practical to buy your poppy seeds in a bulk store. The combination of мед i мак is amazing.
There are some myths that the head of the household takes the bowl of kutia and throws a spoonful onto the ceiling – the more that sticks, the better the harvest to come.
No one does that.
During Sviata Vechera, everyone in the family shares in the kutia. If you’re not keen on it, you just take a little. But, it’s sweet wheat – how can you lose?
How to make kutia
Kutia is basically boiling the daylights out of wheat kernels. My baba used wheat that they grew (and later, wheat from her former neighbours). So, her first step was separating the wheat from the chaff. She wrote (in her beautiful cursive handwriting):
The wheat is with chaff. Take it outside when it’s windy and put a white sheet on the ground and pour from a height. Then on Christmas Eve, wash in several waters. The chaff, what’s left, will come on top. Pour off several times. Soak overnight and cook on a very slow burner, will be ready in an hour and a half.
Or, you can just buy some wheat kernels or berries (not cracked wheat) in bulk at the store. It’s what I do, anyway. But, now you know what to do in case you do have wheat with chaff.
The step where you scald the poppy seeds with hot water is a little strange. But, it’s worth it. I think there’s more flavour.
Some people boil the wheat with a lot of extra water and then drink the wheat water hot or cold. If you’ve had Japanese mugicha (barley tea), it’s similar.
Grind the poppy seeds in a small food processor or a coffee grinder. There should turn from black to a darker grey.
This is my grandmother’s traditional recipe. It’s great – but I also have a more modernized version with dried fruits that’s great to try.
How long does the traditional recipe take? There’s still the manual labour stays the same but…
- Soaking the wheat overnight now not necessary
- Drying/toasting: 15 minutes in the oven still the same
- Boiling: over 3 hours cooking the wheat on the stove now 75 minutes in the Instant Pot
* Instant Pot times are estimates but include pressurization, cooking and de-pressurization on the Instant Pot.
Traditional Instant Pot Kutia
- 2 cup wheat berries red or white
- 4 cups water
- 1 cup honey
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup poppy seeds
- 2 cups boiling water optional
- 1 cup finely chopped walnuts optional
- Preheat your oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Spread the dry wheat berries on a rimmed baking sheet making sure they're in one layer. Bake for 15 minutes.
- Remove the sheet from the oven, shake to distribute the wheat berries. Bake for another 10 minutes.
- Transfer the wheat berries to the Instant Pot with 4 cups of water. If there's any chaff, it'll float to the top - just remove it.
- Set the Instant Pot to Manual and High pressure and 60 minutes
- When the cooking is complete, do a quick release of the pressure.
- Remove about 1 cup of the remaining water or boil 2 cups of water. Combine with the 1/2 cup of poppy seeds so that the poppy seeds are scalded. Let them sit about 10 minutes.
- Using a small food processor or coffee/spice grinder, grind the poppy seeds.
- Add the ground poppy seeds, honey, sugar and nuts to the wheat. If it's still watery, use the Saute function to boil off some of the water. It should be syrupy but not watery.
- Serve at room temperature.
- For even softer wheat, cook the wheat 90 minutes in the Instant Pot.
- It's also great for breakfast on Christmas morning or any morning.
- Make it a couple days ahead of time. With 11 more dishes to make for Christmas Eve, you'll be busy
- Add cinnamon to taste for a less traditional flavour.