Yellow Fish No: Cullen Skink Yes

Here in Johnston Towers we are big fans of smoked haddock. L is happy having hers poached and served very simply with oatcakes. For me it needs mash. For really filling comfort food, top it with a sauce made using the poaching milk, and perhaps a poached egg as well.

But whatever we're doing, we never ever buy the dyed stuff. I'm just not a fan of unnecessary additives, but it got me pondering why dye at all? As I understand it, modern smoking methods take much less time that before, so no colour at all is imparted. A long smoke will impart a light yellow hue - but only to the skin, which is removed. So in a fit of let's-fool-the-consumer madness, manufacturers started dyeing the stuff to a lurid yellow. Not for me, thanks.

It might have come in handy once, when L was out. I thought she had bought ordinary haddock. It was only when I had breadcrumbed and fried it that I realised the mistake. Bizarrely we still persist in calling it yellow fish. The very pragmatic gentlemen at the estimable Gorgie fish merchant D McPherson will offer you both.

L was out again, weekly rehearsal night. The weather was miserable, and I had half of a tub of Elmlea left over from last week's partridge dish. Cullen skink was called for. It's basically a fish chowder. Bizarrely the original meaning of the Scots word was a shin or knuckle of beef, often used in making soup. It then evolved into a general name for soup, though I'm not aware of it in any other context. Cullen is a pretty village on the Moray Firth.

Like all my dishes this is a pretty simple recipes. It yielded three generous portions, and could easily have stretched to four if thinned down a bit. Be careful with the salt as the fish has quite a strong flavour.

Cullen Skink

1 large fillet of (undyed) smoked haddock; 300 ml milk; 1 medium onion or 2 banana shallots, fairly finely diced; about 50g butter; 2 - 3 medium size potatoes, cut into small dice; about 200 ml water; about 150ml double cream or Elmlea; pepper and a little salt.


Put the fish in a frying pan with the milk. Bring to the boil for a couple of minutes then leave. The residual heat will cook the fish. Do NOT dispose of the milk.

Soften the onion or shallots in the butter until soft. You don't want any colour. Add the potatoes with at least enough water to cover, more if you want a thinner soup.  Cook gently until the potato is tender. While that is cooking, remove the fish from the frying pan and flake.

When the potato is done, add the fish, the cooking milk and the cream or Elmlea. Allow to simmer for a little until the soup is piping hot. If you fancy, garnish with chopped chives or parsley. Good served with hunks of crusty bread.


  1. Janet Hood on 3rd November 2023 at 5:17 pm

    I love this soup and sometimes – I’ll probably be shot for this but I love topping it with crunched up crispy dry cure streaky bacon

    • Tom Johnston on 4th November 2023 at 9:21 am

      And why not? I really can’t get precious about “authenticity” when it comes to recipes. For me a recipe is indicative only, not prescriptive. You’re the second person to suggest adding bacon.

  2. Linda Watt on 3rd November 2023 at 5:43 pm

    Fabulous, Tom! We have Cullen Skink most Tuesdays, when the fish van visits Pitlochry. It’s a one pan recipe for me …and a real treat is to add King Prawns (although delicious, it’s is a definite veer away from authenticity!)

  3. Paul on 3rd November 2023 at 6:07 pm

    A good recipe.
    However I saw a similar one which added some smoked streaky bacon. Wow, it was good.

    • Tom Johnston on 4th November 2023 at 9:19 am

      Funnily enough you’re the second person to make that comment – see Janet Hood’s remarks below.

  4. Pat M on 3rd November 2023 at 6:20 pm

    As a north-easter – living 20 miles from Cullen – I can endorse your recipe Tom. A friend makes it with Carnation milk and it’s actually rather good. I had it once at the Bonham in Edinburgh which had curry powder added like moules mouclade and that is good for a change.

    • Tom Johnston on 4th November 2023 at 9:18 am

      Carnation milk? I’ll take your word for it. But a bit of curry? Why not?

Leave a Comment