Kakavia: Traditional Greek fisherman’s soup

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Fishermen’s boats at rest in the harbor of Plaka.

As a child living on the island of Spetses, I would sometimes wake before dawn to look out my bedroom window and see the twinkling of lanterns bobbing their way down the island’s narrow streets and paths—fishermen walking to their boats in the still-dark night. Today in our region and throughout Greece, fishermen still rise before the sun to gather the nets they set the evening before. For most of these men (and, in some cases, women), times are hard. The work is arduous and, because the region’s waters have been fished heavily by industrial fleets, it rarely yields a good catch. Still, there are days of heavy nets, and those are the days these men and women fish and live for.

One of my favorite ways to prepare the day’s catch is in a soup called Kakavia, or fisherman’s soup. The recipe varies widely from family to family, region to region. It can be made using a variety of white fish, including red snapper, cod, and halibut. In some regions, shellfish is added (deliciously). Here’s a simple version, taught to me by a good friend in the village.

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Kakavia with paximadia. Used with permission from the webmaster of jamieoliver.com.

Fisherman’s Soup

For the broth:
1 whole or several small fish, approximately 3 pounds, cleaned and scaled
1 medium onion, cut in half
1 carrot, cut into chunks
2-3 stalks of celery, cut into chunks
Salt to taste

For the soup:
½ cup olive oil
2 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup carrots, peeled and chopped
1 cup chopped onion
salt and pepper to taste
2-3 fresh lemons

Begin with the broth:

  • In a large soup pot, add 8 cups of water, the vegetables and salt.
  • Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.
  • Add the fish, whole, to the simmering broth.
  • Simmer for approximately 15 minutes or until the fish is cooked through.
  • Remove the fish onto a plate and strain the broth into a large bowl. Save the strained vegetables.

Then make the soup:

  1. Using the same soup pot, heat the olive oil and add the vegetables you prepared for the soup. Saute until the vegetables are translucent.
  2. Add the reserved stock and simmer until the potatoes are cooked through.
  3. Add salt and pepper as needed.

Next, the fish:

  1. Remove the bones and skin from the fish.
  2. Arrange the fish on a platter with the vegetables you saved from the broth.
  3. Ladle the soup into bowls and serve with the platter of fish and vegetables.
  4. Add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to each bowl of soup.

While it is traditional to serve the fish alongside the soup, it may also be added to the soup. Either way, this simple dish is a delicious way to warm a chilly winter day. (And we all need that these days, don’t we?) Καλή όρεξη!

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10 thoughts on “Kakavia: Traditional Greek fisherman’s soup

    • I was not just a bit torn about using it, but my own photos of this dish are on a laptop that has stopped working! I did, however, get permission. I don’t appreciate others using my photos without it, thus I never use others’ shots without asking. Enjoying your site, by the way, and will post a link to it from my page if you don’t mind.

      • Lap tops, computers, ipods and all the other i things!
        Troublesome Eris’ little trinkets, Alexis, much like her golden apple, which she has rolled down into the centre of our lives to create yet another planet-wide war! Chaos and discord all round! Nasty goddess that one! You can’t invite her to your party and you can’t cross her off the list!
        I’m glad you’re enjoying my site, Alexis and glad also that you’re thinking of linking to it.
        And, incidentally, I’ve “liked” yours to my FaceBook and people are already discussing this particular recipe!

  1. MMMMMM!!!!!!! The sea, a cold windswept day and this soup. Heaven! Want to do this dish ASAP, probably some Montana version of it (by the fire). Will let you know when it is done.

    • Eileen! So sorry for the delayed reply. I only just saw your question. I’d say you could use just about any firm white fish. Traditionally, fishermen used fish they couldn’t easily sell–in other words, fish that were too small or perhaps not the finest of eating fish. I learned the other day that they’d actually cook it on the boat–sometimes using seawater!–often using tiny sardines or other small fish. Today, people use all kinds of fish, even shellfish. Cod, grouper, anything that will hold together when simmered, are also common.

  2. Alexia…had no idea that you serve the broth and fish separately. Makes sense if you are wanting to keep the fish from getting too soft and mushy and allows everyone to serve themselves what they want.
    It is a lovely photo and I was impressed of the arrangement. You can do this too when the equipment behaves!

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