With so many stories of struggle and heartbreak coming out of Ukraine recently, I thought I would share a story of triumph. Olia Hercules is an acclaimed chef and popular cookbook author who is truly making a name for herself in the food world. Below, you will find information about Chef Hercules, as well as the Ukrainian food she loves to cook.
Olia Hercules was born in the south of Ukraine in 1984. She left her home town Kakhovka at the age of twelve when she moved to Cyprus.
After finishing school, she moved to the UK where she studied Italian and International Relations at the University of Warwick. After spending a year in Italy, Olia settled in London, pursuing a journalistic career after completing her Master’s degree.
Following the financial crisis of 2008, Olia decided to quit her job as a film business reporter to pursue her dream to cook for a living.
She trained at the renowned Leiths School of Food and Wine and then worked as a chef de partie in restaurants, including Ottolenghi, and as a recipe developer before landing a book deal for Mamushka, a cookbook that celebrates her family recipes, from Ukraine and Moldova to Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. Mamushka has won the prestigious Fortnum and Mason Award for best debut cookbook 2016.It has been translated into five languages, and to date has sold over 100,000 copies worldwide. Olia was named the Observer Rising Star of 2015.
Her second cookbook is called Kaukasis: a culinary journey through Georgia, Azerbaijan and beyond. It was published on August 10th in the UK and Australia and in October 2017 in the US, Canada, Germany and Poland.
She is currently working on her third cookbook, Summer Kitchen, with Bloomsbury. It will be published in spring 2020.
Olia lives in London with her son Sasha and husband Joe, writing, cooking and feeding her unceasing curiosity by researching food culture and culinary traditions of countries less explored.
Below are Olia’s Top 3 Recipes from her site. I believe that you can get a better idea of a place when making their traditional dishes. So, get to know Ukraine and Olia by trying out some of these recipes.
Stuffed Cabbage Leaves (Holubtsy)
Serves 6 (makes 12 parcels)
- 2 tbsp sunflower oil
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 1 carrot, grated
- 1 tsp caster sugar
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 fresh bay leaf
- 1 tin chopped tomatoes
- 1 head Savoy cabbage, 12 leaves separated
- sea salt flakes
- freshly ground black pepper
- 250g beef mince
- 250g pork mince
- 160g rice, parboiled and drained
- 40g barberries (optional)
100ml sour cream
½ small bunch dill, finely chopped
Make the sauce first. Heat the oil in a heavy-based casserole. Fry half of the onion and the grated carrot over medium heat for 5-10 minutes until soft. Add the sugar and the tomato paste and cook for 1 minute. Add the bay leaf, tomatoes and 400ml water and season well.
Blanch the cabbage leaves for 2 minutes in boiling water. Then refresh them in cold water and drain well on kitchen paper.
Mix the minces, parboiled rice, barberries, seasoning and the remaining diced onion. Place 50g of the filling on to each cabbage leaf and fold into parcels.k
Place the parcels on top of the sauce, folded side down, tucking them next to each other snugly so they do not unravel.
Cook over a low heat for about 45 minutes or until cooked through. Serve with lots of chopped dill, sourdough bread and a dollop of sour cream on the side.
Green Borshch (Zeleniy Borshch)
- 1 duck, back, wings and giblets
- Onion, peeled but left whole
- Bay Leaf
- sea salt flakes
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 carrot, peeled and grated
- 2 potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
- 100g beetroot leaves and stalks, chopped or 1 small beetroot, julienned
- 50g sorrel, sliced with its stalks
- 2 spring onions, sliced
- 2 chicken eggs (or duck eggs!), hard-boiled and chopped
- 1/2 bunch dill, chopped
- 1/2 bunch parsley, chopped
- 60g sour cream to serve
Place the duck, giblets (bar the liver), onion and bay leaf into a large saucepan and cover with 2.5L of cold water. Add a pinch of sea salt. Bring to a simmer and skim the surface, discarding all the scum. Simmer on the lowest heat possible for 2 hours or until the duck meat falls off the bone. The liquid will reduce by almost half. Keep skimming it from time to time.
Strain the broth into a bowl, reserve the duck bits and pour the liquid back into the pan. Check the seasoning – add salt and pepper to taste.
Pull the duck meat off the bones, discard the bones and set the meat aside.
Skim half a ladleful of duck broth from the very top (you are aiming to skim the fat here) and pour it into a frying pan. Boil off the liquid for a minute until you are left with just duck fat. Add the onions and carrot to the pan and sweat over medium heat stirring all the time until the onion and carrot are soft and caramelized ever so slightly. These will provide beautiful sweetness to the broth.
Introduce this to your stock, followed by potatoes, and cook for 10 minutes.
Add the beetroot leaves and stalks and cook for 5 minutes and switch the heat off.
Place some duck meat into each serving bowl. Then add the raw, chopped sorrel and spring onions on top and pour over the hot stock over them. Garnish with chopped egg, dill and parsley. Serve with a spoonful of good-quality sour cream.
Apple Cake (Biskvit)
- 5 eggs
- 200g caster sugar
- 200g plain flour
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 4 green apples, cored and thinly sliced
- Icing sugar to serve
- Preheat the oven to 180C
- Butter a 22cm cake tin with a removable base.
- Beat the eggs and sugar until very fluffy. There is no raising agent in this cake so the amount of air you beat into it is essential.
- Gently fold in the flour and cinnamon.
- Place the apples at the bottom of the cake tin and pour in the cake batter. Cook for 35 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean.
- Dust with some icing sugar and serve.
A Spotlight On Ukrainian Food
Not only should more people know about Ukrainian chefs; they should know about the delicious food those chefs are cooking. Like the country itself, Ukrainian food is vast and varied. Ukraine is one of the world’s leading grain producers (especially wheat, hence its nickname: “The Breadbasket of Europe”), the country is known for delicious breads and other hearty, rustic dishes. Meats and starches are staples here—the sort of food that gives farmers the energy to work through long winters.
One of Ukraine’s most popular breads is a flat, whole-grain loaf called agnautka, which is often eaten at meals. Another hearty staple is varenyky. Similar to Polish pierogies, these delicious dumplings are boiled, then sautéed for maximum flavor. Traditional fillings include potatoes, onions, cheese, and even sauerkraut. A fruit-filled dessert varenyky is also popular (yum). Meat-wise, its all about chicken, beef and pork (the latter often served in sausage form). It’s not all meats and starches though: root vegetables, mushrooms, strawberries, apples, pears, and cherries are all grown and eaten in Ukraine.
Of course, I would be remiss not to talk about Ukraine’s most famous dish: Chicken Kiev. Named for the country’s capital, this pounded, breaded, and fried (or baked) seasoned butter-stuffed chicken breast is known in Ukraine as Kotleta Po Kyivsky. While the dish has become synonymous with Ukraine, it was actually invented in Russia, centuries ago. While Ukrainian food has a distinct identity, there is a lot of overlap between Ukrainian and Russian foods. Food has a way of transcending ongoing political tensions.
If you enjoyed this article or have suggestions on how we can improve it, please leave us a comment below. Also, make sure to check out other articles I’ve created or stories I’ve written about food culture – here.