Flavours of Ukraine and the Caucasus: cooking with Olia Hercules

The Ukrainian chef and cookbook author describes the dishes of Eastern Europe in her books Mamushka and Kaukasis

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Lauded as a “wholly original voice in the ­kitchen” by none other than ­Nigella Lawson, chef-turned-food writer Olia Hercules is bringing the complex and diverse flavours of Ukraine and the lesser-known recipes of Eastern Europe to a new audience.

Having left her native Ukraine at the age of 12, Hercules spent a large portion of her childhood in Cyprus, and after working as a film reporter, she went on to study in London and Italy. "Every Italian student I knew could cook, and simple dishes such as spaghetti, good olive oil and sea urchin captivated me," she says of her stint at the University of Urbino. "Using good ingredients, the Italians produce something spectacular in the kitchen, but that is also very similar to what we eat back home."

'I feel lucky to have grown up with these flavours'

Accordingly, Hercules's first book, Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine & Beyond, celebrates her family recipes, plus dishes served everywhere from Armenia and Moldova to Siberia and Uzbekistan.

Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine and Beyond by Olia Hercules published by Mitchell Beazley. Courtesy Octopus Publishing

The chef, now based in London, says that the book was written alongside her mother, as a form of therapy. "All Eastern European food is put into one basket as if it were the same thing, and it's tragic," says Hercules, who insists that every country has its own culinary idiosyncrasies. "Ukraine is incredibly diverse, and the same goes for Poland, Lithuania, Georgia – you name it."

Ukraine, which is bordered by Belarus, ­Hungary, Moldova Poland, Romania, Russia and Slovakia, has a rich landscape of forests, seas, rivers and mountains. Hercules explains that each region offers a different set of dishes shaped by its soil, climactic zones and history. The ingredients are almost always grown locally.

"I feel lucky to have grown up with these flavours," Hercules says on the subject of fermenting, a culinary trend that is increasing in popularity in the West. It began in communist-­era Eastern ­Europe, where growing your own food was imperative during times of hardship. "We even ferment watermelons whole in barrels with the skins on, and after six to eight months they become beautifully funky and fizzy. You can even eat the green skin."  

Inspiration for the cookbook

The diversity of her native surroundings comes across in the recipes that Hercules shares with the world, from soupy duck, sorrel and spring onion borscht to Azerbaijani shakh plov, which is made of chicken, caramelised onions, saffron rice, barberries and toasted almonds. "These are all encased in an Armenian lavash and baked until the lavash turns into a crispy shell. You open it with a knife and all this golden rice, dried fruit and nuts fall out – it's a real show-stopper," she says.

The book has been translated into five languages and has sold more than 100,000 copies. "[Focusing on] Ukraine was an easy first choice," she says, because of how little writing is available on Ukrainian cuisine, as well as her understanding of the food and culture thanks to the family recipes passed down to her. ­Mamushka is packed with simple, soul-warming recipes inspired by the food her grandmother and mother made. As well as recipes for ferments and sweet conserves, you will find plump Ukrainian garlic bread; cold beetroot soup with horseradish; garlicky poussin; and a palate-punching vegetable caviar spiked with dill, parsley, coriander and basil.

Having also spent time in Georgia and Azerbaijan with her Armenian aunt, Hercules says her second book, ­Kaukasis, followed naturally, with recipes such as khinkali dumplings; mint adjika with cheese and apricot; and serdakh, a tomato and aubergine dish. "All of these areas are little known, but they're incredible – culturally and gastronomically," she says.

Kaukasis The Cookbook: The culinary journey through Georgia, Azerbaijan & beyond by Olia Hercules published by Mitchell Beazley. Courtesy Octopus Publishing

Everything in Hercules's work is inextricably linked to her family's traditions and values. There's one metaphorical ingredient she labels as key to getting the recipes right. "The best-tasting food comes from feelings," she says, crediting the women in her family for the emotion-dense dishes that led to her own success as an author and chef.

Optimistic about the future

Even family jokes have found their way into the books. "In the movie The Addams Family, there was a scene where they do a Cossack dance called the Mamushka," Hercules says. "We were still kids in the early 1990s in a freshly born country called Ukraine, and it was the first positive reference to Eastern Europe that we had seen in a foreign movie, so we started calling my mum Mamushka." The title of her award-winning book was the logical conclusion of that tag.

Twenty years on, Hercules is optimistic about the changes in Eastern Europe. New flavours, a hunger for knowledge and an appreciation of the region's heritage are all reasons she gives for the recent interest in the food coming out of these countries. It also helps that seasonal eating, organic components and traditional processes of fermentation have caught on among foodies.

"We are in the perfect position now to move our culinary heritage forward and onward," she says, noting how important it is to look back at the way our grandparents ate. Her grandmother is a constant reference throughout this interview and in her work in general. She talks of cooking up kefir dough dumplings and ribs together, and of summer scenes in her grandmother's garden, at a table under a huge walnut tree surrounded by four generations of family members.

Ukrainian chef and food writer Olia Hercules. Photo: Elena Heatherwick

“Cuisines are incredible portals into history,” she says. Having sent out her family and country’s little-known culinary history into the world, the chef is paving her own gateway for us to experience via the smells, textures and tastes of her kitchen.

Hercules is currently working on her third book, Summer Kitchens, which promises fresh and vibrant flavours from the summer kitchens of Ukraine and its bordering nations. Bring on the beetroot.


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