‘Ukha’ (fish soup) in the Siberian forest
By Evgeniy Vishnevskiy
Expressed in grandiose fashion 'ukha' is a triumph, a culinary diamond in the dazzling crown of high Russian cuisine. You could say that 'ukha' (Russian fish soup), for all the tales, proverbs and sayings that have been dedicated to it, is a legendary dish.
In old, pre-Petrine times, ukha referred to any thick, clear bouillon, including those cooked from meat. A.K. Tolstoy's "Silver Prince" immediately comes to mind: "They served various broths and three kinds of ukha: white chicken, black chicken and saffron chicken." Now, however, ukha is only made from fish. The word today may have no other connotations, but it does command almost reverential respect. And understandably so, as ukha represents a significant part of our national heritage. Only in Russia do they really know how to cook ukha.
Ukha is particularly good when cooked on a camp-fire in the coniferous forests of the Siberian taiga, from freshly caught, often live fish that have not had the chance to dry out or go stale. It is a well-known fact, that fish ages rapidly once landed and that once this process sets in the taste of the fish and ukha made from it is of a much poorer quality. Taiga ukha is a perfect natural and organic accompaniment to a pleasant drink in good male company, with friendly conversation and musings on the meaning of life, in short, to everything the wonderful Russian feast involves, even when held around a camp-fire rather than at the table.
Ukha prepared in the Russian forest is usually "multi-tiered", cooked in two, three or even four stages. And each "tier" is placed in the pot one after the other. First to hit the pot are perch and ruff and any other bits of fish such as the heads, tails and fins of fish that are used in the consecutive second and third stages etc. The fish pieces do not have to be cleaned. It is better simply to gut them, and even that is just to remove any bile from the liver which might give the broth an unwanted bitter taste. Likewise the gills should be removed. As well as containing all the nastiness the fish draws out of the water, when cooked the gills will make the broth go cloudy. That said, if the first batch only consists of smallish perch and ruff you can get away without gutting them as the gall bladder will be fairly small and the bile itself not too "malevolent".
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Photographs by Vladimir Reshetnikov. Translation by Joanna Dobson