What is Kutia?

Rebecca Cartwright

Kutia is a traditional Ukrainian sweet grain pudding. It is an important part of the traditional Christmas Eve menu in Ukraine and for some of Ukrainian descent in other countries. The ingredients can vary somewhat but always include wheat berries, poppy seeds, honey and salt. Kutia is also a traditional Christmas food in parts of Poland, where it is called kutia wigilijna, or Christmas Eve kutia. An alternative spelling is "kutya."

Some versions of kutia feature pecans and other nuts.
Some versions of kutia feature pecans and other nuts.

The dish resembles porridge or sweet grain soup and is served either warm or cooled to room temperature. Dried wheat berries are simmered for several hours in water with a bit of salt until soft but not falling apart. The poppy seeds and honey are added to the berries after the cooking is complete. Sometimes the poppy seeds are soaked or boiled and then ground, but in many versions of the dish they are left whole. Modernized recipes are sometimes baked after the cooked wheat berries are mixed with the other ingredients.

Some versions of kutia are sweetened with honey.
Some versions of kutia are sweetened with honey.

Over the years, and as Ukrainians and those of Polish descent have moved to other parts of the world, variations in kutia ingredients have become numerous. Some common additions include raisins or currants, almonds, pecans or other nuts, cinnamon and sugar. Polish recipes often included alcohol, usually grain alcohol, and modern variations sometimes call for rum or other spirits. Other possible additions include figs, dates, vanilla, lemon peel and chopped apple. Milk or cream are sometimes substituted for part of the water.

In both Ukrainian and Polish traditions, kutia is the first course of a vegetarian meal on Christmas Eve. This meal traditionally begins after the children of the house have sighted the first star of the evening, and it includes 12 courses, many of which have symbolic meanings. The wheat in kutia represents the staff of life while the honey is symbolic of the spirit of Christ.

Kutia is an ancient dish, and some customs surrounding it are not religious. One tradition, which seems to be dying out, dictated that Ukrainian families throw portions of the grain on the ceiling during their Christmas Eve celebrations. The amount of the grain that stuck to the ceiling was said to correspond with the luck the household would experience in the coming year. Some Ukrainian households set a dish of kutia and a lit candle on a windowsill on Christmas Eve to honor their ancestors or, after World War I, those soldiers who died fighting for Ukrainian independence in 1918.

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