The dish can be spelled in a variety of ways including kutia, kutya, kucya, kucyji but within the old eastern parts of Poland, which at one time incorporated the western parts of what is currently known as the Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus, it was known as kucia and kucja
Kucja was a dish of boiled wheat berries mixed with poppy seeds, honey and nuts and, for those who could afford the luxury, raisins. In these regions, whether peasant or noble, kucja was the reigning monarch, the queen of all Christmas eve dishes, the flagship dish of the evening- so much so that Christmas Eve and the Christmas Eve meal itself was often called Kucja.
It is a dish worthy of respect not just for its antiquity but for its symbolic ties to family and ancestral memory. In time now long gone from memory, it always appeared at funerals as a meal for the deceased and also during the winter solstice when kucja was left at on the graves of deceased members of the family. The poppy was considered a symbol of death and sleep, making it a link between the world of the dead and the living. The abundance of seeds was supposed to ensure fertility and prosperity in the coming year.
Wheat berries were considered life giving for within them lay the rebirth of nature. Their seeds were magical, sprouting from the earth again in the spring. Honey is as old as man himself and a symbol of health and plenty and walnuts, with their secret interior, have always been considered a gift from the gods and associated with fertility. In toto, all the elements of the dish were meant to feed their ancestors who were the source of plenty and abundance.
When the church discouraged the leaving of food at gravesites, that particular custom was abandoned but people still opened their doors and windows to encourage their departed to take a seat in their ancestral home during the winter solstice which among Christians became the Christmas Eve meal, the Kucja, in Poland called Wigilia. It was believed that at this time of the year - at the end of the old and the beginning of the new - the souls of the dead came back among the living and it was for them, the deceased, that the dish was made. It was in their honor. And that honor was expressed when, after the sharing of the opłatek, the dish of kucja was eaten first. The head of the household partook of it, solemnly followed by the rest of family members present. After everyone consumed kucja, the rest of the prepared dishes for the evening were served.
War and politics shrunk the old boundaries of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth and the lost regions came to be known as the eastern borderlands of Poland, the Kresy Wschodnie, or simply, Kresy.
Photo: Tylfomapy.pl The area on orange depicts the areas lost to Poland after WWII and called the eastern borderlands of Poland. They are now part of Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania.
But war, changing boundaries and the migration of people cannot erase cultural memory easily. Kucja still lives on along the eastern border of Poland in the Podlasie and Lublin areas, along the Carpathian Mountains and wherever people from the old boundaries of Poland settled within the boundaries of current Poland. The custom crossed oceans and lives on in the Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Belorussian diaspora throughout the world. It’s now more commonly referred to as kutia, but variations on the name still exist. Some make it with barley and some with rice, but that, too, was another method of preparing the dish in those regions. While some still eat the dish first after sharing opłatek, as did their ancestors, the sweetness of it led it to become the closing dish of the Wigilia meal. It’s all in keeping with the saying in those regions that: “There is no Wigilia without kucja.”
Here is a recipe for making kutia from my cookbook. Not difficult but cooking the wheat berries takes some time. The dish is served at room temperature.
Look for Christmas in the Kresy. Part II: Excerpts from diaries and memoirs about Christmas in eastern Poland
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.