Kasha recipe history culture origin

Buckwheat has a special place in the Russian diet as well as Russian history and the modern Russian economy. Click here for original image.

Kasha (Sochivo, Kutya): Russian Porridge

Published: July 14, 2018

Early on those cold autumn and winter mornings, there is nothing quite like a steaming bowl of kasha (каша) to prepare for a long day ahead. In Russia, kasha is porridge typically made by cooking “гречка” (buckwheat), “овсянка” (oatmeal), or “рис” (rice) with “молоко” (milk) or “вода“(water). Porridge is not the first thing that comes to mind when considering delectable foreign cuisine, and indeed, like most simple foods is actually consumed in various forms by many world cultures. However, for Russians, it is a nutritious and versatile staple food, with significant cultural and economic importance.

Why It’s Called “Kasha”

(Почему она носит такое название?)

The word “kasha” is ancient, with a proto-Slavic origin. Mention of it is replete throughout written Slavic history, and the adage “каша – мать наша” (Porridge is our mother) is a common folk saying without known origin. The Russian Primary Chronicle, the oldest known history of Russia, tells a tale of how kasha saved Prince Vladimir and his people. Besieged by a hostile Turkic tribe, Vladimir’s subjects prepare kasha with honey and offer it to the Turks who exclaim, “Our princes will not believe this marvel, unless they eat of the food themselves!”

Most Americans think immediately of oatmeal when they think of porridge. However, kasha is associated in Russia primarily with buckwheat (buckwheat). The oldest traces of гречка as a cultivated crop are found in China where it crept northward to Siberia and then eventually west over the Ural Mountains. Гречка took hold in the Slavic regions, quickly becoming the staple crop.

There are many reasons for this. Probably most importantly, гречка only takes 30 days to reach maturity, making it ideal for Russia’s short summers. During the Soviet era, the USSR grew approximately 75 percent of the world’s crop of buckwheat. To the present day, Russia still produces the world’s largest crop of buckwheat, followed by the crop’s progenitor, China.

Buckwheat, which is actually a fruit seed in same family as rhubarb and sorrel, is also unusually high in protein and microelements. Thus, the nutritional yield per harvest was also greater than many other crops, allowing the Slavs to stay healthier through the long winter and muddy spring and fall.

Do not be mistaken that kasha is only made from buckwheat though. Nearly any type of grain can be used in substitute. Other common grains include rice, oats, millet, semolina, and barley.

When and How to Eat Kasha

(Как правильно есть кашу?)

Kasha holds a special place in Russia’s history and is eaten both as a common, everyday dish and, in more complicated preparations and presentations, for celebratory events and holidays. Kasha is often eaten by itself or as a main dish for breakfast or as a side dish for lunch or dinner. Many Russians will consider a lunch of soup and kasha, sometimes adding the kasha to the soup, a hearty and pleasant lunch.

Kasha is such a common food in Russia that it is included in the food baskets that economists watch to study the effects of inflation. Whenever Russians sense that an economic crisis may be on the horizon (which is not uncommon in Russia), the price of kasha, and especially buckwheat, is one of the first to rise as Russians will stock up and hoard the easily-storable, nutritious food.

Kasha recipe history culture origin
A dish of Christmas кутья – boiled wheat with poppy seeds, nuts, and dried fruit.

Kasha is also associated with traditions associated with weddings, births, and holiday feasts. Sometimes referred to as “the first meal,” kasha is among the first types of solid food that babies will eat because of its high nutrition and ease of digestion. At the birth of a baby, kasha was cooked and served to friends and family as a “заветного крестильного блюда” (a baptismal covenant meal), signifying that the family will raise the baby in the rites of the church. This tradition, however, is now quite rare in the post-Soviet era.

Another kasha tradition that is now rarely followed concerns marriage. On the second day of marriage, young couples once traditionally made couples at their homes, invited guests to eat it, and the guests would give money to the new couple to help start their new lives.

More commonly today, special variations of kasha are made for holidays. At Christmastime, Russians often prepare one of two special, sweet versions of kasha: “сочиво” (sochivo) or “кутья” (kutia). Sochivo takes a wheat base and adds honey, poppy seeds, and walnuts, along with a bit of salt. Kutia combines wheat or barley with the same base ingredients of honey, poppy seeds, and walnuts, but also usually adds some fruit and spices like apricots, raisins, and cinnamon.

Kochivo or kutia are consumed as the first of 12 dishes that make up a traditional Orthodox Christmas Eve feast on January 6. (Why is Russian Christmas on January 7? Click here.) Since Christmas is primarily a religious holiday in Russia, the feast is a reverent occasion. A single candle in the center of the table represents the Star of Bethlehem, and a hymn is usually sung immediately prior to the meal. One of these dishes is also sometimes made for New Year’s Eve, the major holiday of every Russian’s year.

Kasha recipe history culture origin
“Bebi Sitter” brand buckwheat kasha is specially prepared for children over four months old. Buckwheat kasha is often a Russian’s first solid food.

Kutia is also traditionally made as a part of the extended mourning rites in Russian Orthodox funerals.

How to Prepare Kasha

(Как правильно готовить кашу?)

Interestingly, although kasha has long been recognized by the Russian population as one of their major sources of nutrition and continued life, the continual cultivation and preparation of kasha has also long been a source of worry and necessitated labor for the Russian population.

Thus, Russian has many positive sayings about kasha, such as “щи да каша — кормилицы наши” (loosely translated: “cabbage soup and porridge are our suckle”) and “где каша, там и наши” (“where you find porridge, you will find our brethren”). However, Russian also has many negative sayings about kasha as well. “Заварить кашу” (“to cook porridge”) is often used as a euphemism for “to start trouble” and “расхлёбывать кашу” (“to deal with porridge”) means “to deal with problems.” Likewise, when snow mixes with dirt and pollution on winter city streets and forms a brown mush that tends to stain anything it touches, Russians call this mush “kasha.” If a Russian questions someone’s intelligence, he will frequently say that that person has “каша в голове” (“porridge in his head”).

Sayings surrounding common preparations of kasha have also become standard parts of the Russian language. Kasha’s universal topping is butter; it is pictured as the serving suggestion on nearly every box of prepackaged kasha, and it does notably improve the taste. A positive Russian saying about this is “кашу маслом не испортишь” (You cannot ruin porridge with butter), which means that you can’t ruin something by adding something good even if you add too much. Russian also has a saying that is typically used in more negative contexts: “Заварил кашу, так не жалей масла.” This literally means “you’ve boiled the porridge, so don’t spare the butter” but is used in the context of “you started something, now finish it (and do it right)”.

Kasha recipe history culture origin
A traditional Russian stove (the large white structure) would often take over a good deal of space in Russian homes.

Other common additives include salt, which can boost the flavor of even sweetened kasha. Eggs are very commonly added in various forms. A fried egg over the top of kasha or a boiled egg, peeled and diced with dill, and then mixed into kasha both produce a very pleasant, common, filling, and inexpensive meal for many Russians.

Proper preparation also goes a long way, transforming a mess of gruel into a tantalizing bowl of hot cereal, abundant in nuanced flavor. A less common trick when cooking kasha is to refrigerate the dish before reheating and serving. Especially when adding several different ingredients (particularly herbs or seasonings), refrigerating the kasha and letting the flavors blend for a day or two (similar to what recipes for potato salad often call for), can really bring out the flavor of the dish.

The most traditional preparation methods for kasha call for long hours of simmering in an old-style “русская печь” (Russian oven). These were massive structures, that once took up an entire corner of most Russian’s homes. They were used for both cooking and warmth. The low, steady heat created the perfect consistency and grain texture while allowing plenty of time for the flavors to mix together. Today, it is far more common to see kasha simply prepared on a stovetop (or even microwave!): Pour milk or water over the preground supermarket kasha, and let it cook for the time stated on the box.

Because kasha is eaten so widely throughout Russia and the former Soviet Republics, the variations on it are also nearly endless.

Let’s Cook!

(Давай приготовим!)

See below for a free recipe for various Russian kashas and free videos. If you are interested in cooking from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Georgia, and other places in Eurasia, make sure to see our other resources! You might also be interested in the following specialized cookbooks we’ve enjoyed:

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Гречневая каша Buckwheat Kasha
  1. пропорция: 1 часть крупы на 2 части воды,
  2. плотная крышка на варочной ёмкости (кастрюле),
  3. первые 3-4 минуты закипания сильный огонь, с постепенным уменьшением пламени и совсем слабым в конце варки,
  4. нельзя открывать крышку и мешать кашу во время приготовления,
  5. Любая каша любит масло, в том числе и гречневая –добавляйте его в конце, когда выключите огонь.
  1. Proportions: 1 part grains to 2 parts water
  2. A tight lid on the cooking pot
  3. Boil for the first 3-4 minutes on high heat, and gradually decrease heat until it is on very low by the end
  4. Do not uncover the porridge and stir while it cooks.
  5. Buckwheat goes great with butter – add some at the end when you turn off the heat.
Перловка с мясом и овощами Barley Porridge with Meat and Vegetables
Ингредиенты:  (на 4 порции)
  • Говяжья вырезка (нарезанная кусками по 1,5 см) – 400 г
  • Морковь (нарезанная тонкими ломтиками) – 1 1/2 стакана
  • Стебель сельдерея (тонко резаный) – 1 1/2 стакана
  • Лук репчатый (мелко резаный) – 2/3 стакана
  • Грибы шампиньоны свежие (резаные ломтиками) – 230 г
  • Бульон говяжий – 4 стакана
  • Лавровый лист – 1 шт.
  • Перловая крупа – 2/3 стакана
  • Соль – 1/2 ч. л.
  • Чёрный молотый перец – 1/2 ч. л.
  • Масло растительное

Приготовление

  1. Большую чугунную кастрюлю (казанок) разогреть на средне-сильном огне. Слегка смазать растительным маслом. Выложить в промасленную кастрюлю куски мяса и готовить, помешивая, около 4 минут, до коричневого цвета. Переложить жареное мясо на тарелку и отставить в сторону.
  2. В казанок высыпать морковь, сельдерей, лук и грибы, готовить, помешивая, около 6 минут, до полного выпаривания жидкости.
  3. Выложить в кастрюлю с овощами жареное мясо и лавровый лист, залить всё бульоном. На средне-сильном огне довести содержимое кастрюли до кипения, а затем накрыть крышкой, уменьшить огонь и тушить мясо около 1 1/2 часа, периодически помешивая.
  4. Затем ввести в кастрюлю перловку, снова закрыть крышкой и готовить перловку с мясом до мягкого состояния крупы, минут 30. Посолить и поперчить, удалить лавровый лист и подавать перловку с мясом на стол.
Ingredients: (makes 4 servings)
  • Beef tenderloin (cut into pieces 1.5 cm) – 400 g/14 oz.
  • Carrot (thinly sliced) – 1 1/2 Cup
  • Celery (thinly sliced) – 1 1/2 Cup
  • Onion (finely chopped) – 2/3 Cup
  • Fresh mushrooms (such as sliced) – 230 g/8 oz.
  • Beef broth – 4 cups
  • Bay leaf – 1 leaf.
  • Pearl barley – 2/3 Cup
  • Salt – 1/2 tsp
  • Ground black pepper – 1/2 tsp
  • Vegetable oil

 

 

Preparation

  1. Lightly grease a large cast-iron pot with vegetable oil. Put in the meat and cook, stirring, for about 4 minutes, until brown over medium-high heat. Put the cooked meat on a plate and set aside.
  2. Add the carrots, celery, onion and mushrooms to the pot; cook, stirring, about 6 minutes, until the liquid has completely evaporated.
  3. Add the broth to the pot with the vegetables. Add the cooked meat and bay leaf and cook on medium-high heat to bring the contents of the saucepan to a boil, then cover, reduce the heat and simmer the meat about 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.
  4. Then put the grains into the pot, close the lid again and cook the barley with the meat until the barley is soft (for about 30 minutes). Add salt and pepper, remove the bay leaf and serve.
Кутья Kutia (traditional Christmas porridge)
Ингредиенты: 
  • Пшеница – 150 г
  • Мак – 50 г
  • Сахар – по вкусу
  • Грецкие орехи – 80 г
  • Сахар – 50 г
  • Мёд – 50 г
  • Ванильный сахар – 10 г
  • Цедра лимона (по желанию) – по вкусу

Приготовление 

  1. Пшеницу промыть и замочить в холодной воде на ночь.
  2. Утром слить воду, налить чистую холодную воду. Дать закипеть. Варить пшеницу до готовности на среднем огне, 30-50 минут.
  3. Вскипятить чайник. Мак промыть холодной водой. Промытый мак залить кипятком на полчаса, воду слить, мак осушить.
  4. Изюм залить кипятком на 5 минут. Воду слить.
  5. Орехи порубить ножом.
  6. Мак растереть с сахаром в ступке или блендере, чтобы мак дал сок.
  7. Смешать все ингредиенты, добавить по вкусу мёд и сахар. Можно добавить цедру лимона. Густоту каши можно сделать по вашему вкусу.
Ingredients:
  • Wheat – 150 g/5 oz.
  • Poppy Seeds- 50 g/1.7 oz.
  • Sugar – to taste
  • Walnuts – 80 grams/3 oz.
  • Sugar – 50 g/1.7 oz.
  • Honey – 50 g /1.7 oz.
  • Vanilla sugar – 10 g/0.35 oz.
  • Lemon zest (optional) – to taste

Preparation

  1. Wash the wheat and soak in cold water overnight.
  2. In the morning, drain it, and pour in clean, cold water. Bring to a boil. Cook the wheat until tender on medium heat 30-50 minutes.
  3. Boil a kettle of water. Rinse the poppy seeds with cold water. Pour the boiling water on the washed poppy seeds and leave for a half hour, then drain the water and let the poppy seeds dry.
  4. Pour more boiling water on the raisins. Let stand for 5 minutes. Drain the water.
  5. Chop the nuts with a knife.
  6. Grind the poppy seeds with sugar in a mortar or blender until the poppy seeds give juice.
  7. Mix all the ingredients, add honey and sugar to taste. You can also add lemon zest. The density of the porridge can be changed based on your tastes.
Сочиво Sochivo (traditional Christmas porridge)
Ингредиенты:
  • 1 стакан зёрен пшеницы
  • 100 г мака
  • 100 г ядер грецких орехов
  • 1-3 столовые ложки мёда
  • сахар по вкусу

Приготовлени:

  1. Зёрна пшеницы расталкивают в деревянной ступе, подливая немного тёплой воды, чтобы оболочка пшеницы отошла. Затем ядро отделяют от шелухи, просеивая и промывая. Дальше варят обычную рассыпчатую постную кашу на воде.
  2. Параллельно растирают мак до получения макового молочка, добавляют мёд, всё перемешивают и добавляют к пшенице. В конце добавляются толчёные ядра грецких орехов.
  3. Правда, есть еще один способ приготовления сочива — из риса. Рис заливают кипятком и варят три минуты на сильном огне, шесть — на среднем. Ещё двенадцать минут нужно не открывать крышку, давая рису настояться на пару.
  4. Соотношение всех компонентов для сочива сохраняется. Можно добавить в него изюм, курагу, чернослив и т.д.
Ingredients: (makes X servings)
  • 1 cup of wheat grains
  • 100 g poppy seeds (3.5 oz)
  • 100 grams of walnut kernels (3.5oz)
  • 1-3 tablespoons honey
  • sugar to taste

Preparation:

  1. Work the wheat in a wooden mortar, adding a little warm water to help the wheat shell separate. Once separated, sieve and wash the wheat. Then cook the wheat as usual in water.
  2. Grind the poppy seeds until they give juice. Add honey, stir, and add to the wheat. Crush the walnuts and add.
  3. Rice may also be used in place of wheat in preparing sochivo. Pour boiling water over the rice and cook, covered, for three minutes on high heat or six over medium heat. Let stand for twelve more minutes before opening the cover, letting it further steam.
  4. You may add to rice sochivo anything that would be added to wheat sochivo: raisins, dried apricots, prunes, etc.

Our Favorite Kasha Videos

Competitive kasha! A short video showcasing the versatility of the dish with a number of chefs competing to make the best каша.

 

An alternative video lesson on how to make rice kutia. The spoken Russian is fairly slow and clear, and the finished dish looks delicious!

 

A Russian Orthodox Monk gives a short history of sochivo and his own recipe for making it.

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About the author

Jonathan Rainey

Jonathan Rainey majored in History and English at Francis Marion University in Florence, SC. While at Francis Marion, he was a member of Phi Alpha Theta, National History Honors Society and worked as a reporter for The Patriot, the university's newspaper. Jonathan will be serving as an SRAS Home and Abroad Scholar in Vladivostok for the 2015-2016 school year.

Program attended: Home and Abroad Scholar

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