Ribena Chorba – Bulgarian Fish Stew

I have long been a fan of fish stew. I used to make bouillabaisse for my mother on Mother’s Day. A favorite memory from my Eurail trip in the summer of ’91 is the Portuguese fish stew I had near the beach in Ericeira. When I see cioppino on the menu, I usually order it. Strangely perhaps, fish stew is my favorite dish to eat and to make.

Later I had the good fortune to marry a Bulgarian, and be introduced to a new and different fish stew, which Bulgarians call ribena chorba, which simply means “fish stew”. If you are in Byala, Bulgaria, your ribena chorba would be a combination of carp, lovage (devicil in Bulgarian), potatoes, some random vegetables plus salt and pepper. The core of it is the carp + lovage. The taste is unique and cannot be described. Bulgarians grow the herb simply to use in this dish.

As luck would have it, it was a favorite dish of my father-in-law. More than a decade ago, he taught me how to make it. I’ve made it several times a year since, adapting for local (Ithaca NY) ingredients and playing with bouillabaisse and cioppino influences. I have even forgotten the original recipe, even though I eat it every summer in Bulgaria.

The number one difference is that I don’t bother with the carp. Instead I buy a club pack of Tilapia from Wegman’s and let it thaw. I grow the lovage in my garden – it’s not that hard of an herb to find in the nurseries if you’re willing to grow it yourself. You may have luck finding it in the store. I have not looked, as lovage was the first thing I planted in my garden more than a decade ago.

Sometimes I use potatoes; sometimes I use fennel. The fennel comes from bouillabaisse. If I didn’t have good CSA potatoes at hand, I would buy fennel in the store and use that.

BONUS: I am a big fan of steamed mussels. I steam them in water mixed with onions, garlic, white wine, dill, and lovage. I save the broth to use in ribena chorba. If you have something like this on hand, any kind of fish broth, really, you’ll be glad you used it here. Same goes for shrimp. However I do not usually add shellfish to this stew, as it wants only fatty white fish.

If you’re thinking of swai instead of tilapia, stick with the tilapia. Swai gives the stew an unwelcome funky flavor. Catfish or whitefish could also work.


  • 1 club pack of Tilapia (8 fillets usually)
  • a few shoots of lovage (a few dozen leaves)
  • OPTIONAL dill – about half as much as the lovage
  • 1 lb or so potatoes, preferably organic CSA yellows, chopped for soup
  • OR 1 bulb fennel, sliced horizontally
  • 2 carrots, chopped into soup sized pieces
  • 1 can tomatoes (or a quart bag from the freezer, preferably roasted on the grill before freezing)
  • 1-2 onions, chopped for soup
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
  • salt (1-2 tablespoons)
  • 12 black peppercorns
  • paprika (I prefer roasted pimenton, which I buy at Zabar’s in Manhattan whenever I am in the city)
  • olive oil and/or sunflower oil for frying
  • 1 qt. vegetable broth if you have it, no worries if you don’t, I usually don’t but am glad when I do
  • Water – 2-4 quarts, basically however much your pot is big
  • OPTIONAL but nice: 1-2 red or green sweet peppers
  • OPTIONAL if you like spicy: soak an Anaheim pepper in water, then add it to the broth. I had to stop this because it’s too spicy for my kids.

Cooking gear:

  • a big soup pan (basically the biggest pot you own)
  • a frying pan
  • an empty yogurt container (for adding water to the soup)
  • spatula, spoon

Cooking Directions

Step 1:

If you’re using potatoes, you want to par-fry them so they don’t fall apart in the boil. Fry them in the frying pan for 8-10 minutes then transfer them to the stew pot.

Par-fry means you don’t want to make French fries, you just want to sear the outsides so the potatoes have a nice crust.

Step 2:

Lightly fry the onions. Add the garlic toward the end. Add to the stew pot.

Step 3:

Turn on the flame under the stew pot. Add the can of tomatoes, the carrots, and the fennel if you are using it. Then add the broth and/or a few quarts of water, the salt and pepper. I usually add the paprika once its come to a boil, but there’s no cooking logic behind it.

Step 4:

While the stew pot comes to a boil, chop the fish into bite size but not too small pieces. As with the potatoes, the objective is to par-fry them so they stay in one piece when you add them to the boil. Oil the frying pan and add enough fish to cover the bottom. Count to 30, flip it over, count to 30, then dump it in the soup. Keep doing this until all of the fish is in the soup, which should be boiling by the time the first fish is fried.

Step 5:

Turn down the heat to the lowest to keep it boiling. Add the paprika if you haven’t already. Check if it needs more salt. Be more generous with the salt than may be your instinct.

Step 6:

With the lovage, remove the leaves from the stems. Chop the leaves. If you don’t have that much lovage, you can also chop up some of the stems. Add these to the stew.

Step 7:

I usually let it boil for half hour to an hour with the lid cracked. Then I turn it off, seal the lid, and let it cool down. When it’s serving temperature, I’ll have a celebratory bowl. Then I leave it on the stovetop all night, have a bowl for breakfast, then put the rest in quart jars or yogurt pots in the fridge.

October 5, 2013 in Life
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