Chef Olia Hercules couldn’t face the kitchen after Russia invaded her homeland. Then she realised that food was her best way to fight for Ukraine. By Sophie Morris
Olia Hercules (c) Joe Woodhouse
For a few months this year, Olia Hercules was a chef who couldn’t cook. “Cooking felt almost an act of betrayal,” says the Ukrainian-born, London-based author of four cookbooks, remembering the immediate trauma of the Russian invasion of her country in late February. “When I thought of all the horrors that were happening, I couldn’t. I felt like a traitor making food for my children, or even holding my children.”
Her breakthrough moment came in Italy in April, when she met her parents, who had finally fled their home in Ukraine’s occupied Kherson region, at Hercules’ insistence. “I had a huge meltdown on the phone with them after Bucha,” she says. (In early April, the massacre of around 1,000 Ukrainian civilians was discovered after Russian forces withdrew from the city).
Hercules flew out a day early because she wanted them to arrive to home-cooked food. Her parents walked in to the smell of a big pot of borscht - a substantial meat broth, typically pink with beetroot, which is probably Ukraine’s most recognisable dish - handmade pasta and some cold beers.
“At that point, cooking for my parents felt big, something I was doing to heal not just my parents and myself, but Ukraine,” Hercules says. “And I enjoyed it so much. I loved it. Here I am. Here they are. We’re alive and I’m making them food. Our food that’s delicious and that no one can take away from us. And I’m going to take pleasure in it. Putin wants to destroy us psychologically so we can’t take pleasure in anything. Screw you.”
When we speak in early June, Hercules is at the London home she shares with her husband, Joe Woodhouse - a food photographer and writer - her sons Sasha and Wilfred and her teenage niece, recently arrived from Ukraine. Hercules and her toddler are both ill with colds and she is obviously and understandably exhausted, but says that being able to cook again shows she is entering a new stage in her resistance. “It’s not the same, but I’m getting into it more and more.”
The day before our interview, she enjoyed some brief moments of buoyancy after finding a way to get cash through to employees of her family’s agricultural equipment business in Kakhovka, a port city in southern Ukraine, which has been occupied by Russia since March.
These days, she is much more than a cook. She is an activist, campaigner, fundraiser and mouthpiece for her country, working to keep Ukraine top of the news agenda, to educate her audience on the bleakness of current events and the beauty of her country, its people, food, art and crafts.
Her parents are now safe in Germany, but every day brings new trauma. Just over a week ago, Russia launched a missile strike on Kyiv - hitting residential targets a few hundred metres from her brother.
She oscillates between periods of extreme productivity and slumps of despair. At one point she tells me she is feeling hopeless and out of ideas, but her energetic activism has raised more than £1m for Unicef UK’s Ukraine appeal with #CookForUkraine, an initiative set up with some friends promoting Ukrainian supper clubs and bake sales. She is also creating a huge resource of food and cultural content on her personal Patreon - an online subscription service - and sending the money raised back to Ukraine.
In the UK, most #CookForUkraine participants use Hercules’ cookbooks for recipes and inspiration. After working in restaurant kitchens, she realised that there was plenty to celebrate in the cuisine of her childhood in southern Ukraine, where she lived until emigrating to Cyprus aged 12, then the UK at 18.
She started to write it down, extracting the knowledge from her mother, Olga, and other relatives. In 2015, Hercules’ debut, Mamushka, introduced the vibrant food of southern Ukraine to British cooks. With Kaukasis (2017) she travelled to Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Iran, Russia and Turkey, reaching through the larder of the Caucasus and her own family history.
One thing she is grateful for today is having finished the groundwork for 2020’s Summer Kitchens before the pandemic or the war hit. She researched this book on a 10,000-mile road trip, recording and reviving recipes and cooking traditions which had been suppressed in the Soviet era, and may yet become obsolete.
“They had this really horrible policy of standardisation all over the Son viet Union so it was really important for me to dig these up,” she says. “I’ve always known food is political, but I’ve known it more and really paid attention to it in the past 10 years.”
Other food writers translating this region for English speakers include Caroline Eden and #CookforUkraine collaborator Alissa Timoshkina.
Hercules’ fourth cookbook, Home Food, with photography by Woodhouse, is published this week as Hercules turns 38. Its perspective remains true to her eastern roots, but picks through the many strands which make up the food she eats in her own home. Pre-war, Hercules turned to food for comfort, remembering when her mother guessed she’d had a bad day at school and made her favourite dish. “Dumpling dough [is] for ever a reminder of unconditional love and protection,” she says.
During the lowest moments of the pandemic, putting her baby in a sling and cooking for the family improved her mood. “When I started cooking I found so much solace,” she explains. “It’s such a meditative act. It does wonderful things to your brain.”
Most of the recipes in Home Food are simple and inexpensive, with twists of flavour and texture that make them new and exciting - sesame and sunflower oils, bursts of dill, tarragon and sorrel, sour cherries, buckwheat cake, baked yoghurt.
There are crunchy salads, rich meat dishes, sour soups and sweet cakes, collected from Hercules’ family and her favourite cooks and cookbooks, from Iran and Armenia to Cyprus and Croatia, Lithuania and Bulgaria, right through to the modern British cooks she counts as influences, including Nigel Slater, Henry Harris and Theo Randall. There is Aunt Nina’s cabbage pie, her brother’s aubergine salad, Grandma Vera’s Central Asian plov (a lamb neck and rice pilaf) Bobbie’s chicken and pork adobo from a friend’s Filipina mother and her neighbour Fatima’s Bengali chicken roast.
It is impossible to reference everyone and everything here, but Hercules does, as diligent a food historian as she is generous with her attributions. As a guide, she is nurturing and pragmatic, saying not to worry if the vegetables are cooked past the al dente of modern western tastes or if meat isn’t falling off the bone, that a bit of crunch and chewiness is the norm in many cultures.
The food of Hercules’ family has been shaped by its mixed heritage and migrations. Her paternal grandmother, Vera, grew up in Siberia, emigrated to Uzbekistan in the 1950s then moved to Ukraine where she continued to make her favourite Uzbek recipes, substituting local ingredients where necessary. Hercules dubs Grandma Vera the “Economising Queen” and channels her by encouraging readers to use substitutes instead of going out to buy specific ingredients. Use oils, vinegars and sugars you already have in the fridge.
“There are enough anxieties in life; cooking should be about trying to let go and relax,” she writes. “If something goes slightly wrong, more likely than not it can be fixed, overlooked or learned from.”
Looking back to her childhood diet leads Hercules to her own food nemesis, the strongmen of eastern European cooking - cabbage and potatoes. She doesn’t dislike them but has always resented the way they became shorthand for a diverse group of food cultures, all dominated by the Soviet Union. “When I was writing my first book, Mamushka, I already had a deep complex from everyone equating Ukrainian food with Soviet food,” she admits.
In Home Food she comes full circle, takes hold of the cabbage and potato narrative and devotes a chapter to them. It’s not “10 ways with potatoes” but a loving backwards glance at the cabbage fritters, rice salads and fried potatoes of her upbringing, along with the Cypriot salad and keftedes (meatballs) of her time in Cyprus, where her family moved in part to ease Hercules’ asthma, which began after the Chernobyl disaster.
The moment we finish our Zoom, I make her mum’s fried potato recipe - “the thing your dad would make if your mum wasn’t home to cook.”
The point of the dish is imperfection, unevenly sliced potatoes so that some end up crispy, even burnt, others meltingly soft, a deeply pleasurable mix of yield and bite and crunch.
“Despite what the Soviet Union did, there is so much room for nuance, for a deeper understanding of our own lives, our childhoods and families,” she says.
“Cultures and people and traditions don’t come out of a vacuum. What makes culture interesting is the freedom to have some kind of exchange. I think it’s a very dangerous thing to say borscht is either Ukrainian or Polish. Personally, I do think borscht originates from Ukraine, but do I think anyone else can’t cook it? Of course not!”
‘Home Food: Recipes to Comfort and Connect’ by Olia Hercules is published on Thursday (Bloomsbury, £26)
STEAMED CABBAGE WITH SUNFLOWER SEED DRESSING
I first tried something similar to this at a small restaurant called Peg in east London. The dressing, I figured, was based on a Japanese sesame-seed preparation called goma, though its toasted seed flavour took me back home. I reimagined the recipe with an extra injection of Ukraine, using sunflower seeds instead. It is one of the most delicious dressings and works on many other steamed or roasted vegetables.
Serves 4 as a side dish or 2 as a light lunch ? 100g sunflower seeds
2 tbsp mild vinegar (cider or rice vinegar is good), or to taste tbsp honey, or to taste ? 1 tbsp soy sauce, or 1 tsp sea salt, or to taste 2 tbsp unrefined sunflower oil (or sesame, rapeseed, or another nutty oil) 1 pointed (hispi) cabbage (or regular white cabbage)
Preheat the oven to 180?C fan. To make the dressing, put the sunflower seeds on a baking tray and roast for 6 minutes. They should become golden and very tasty.
Blitz most of the sunflower seeds into a paste, reserving a handful for sprinkling over at the end. I use an old coffee grinder for this, but a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle should do the job.
Put the seed paste into a bowl and add the vinegar, honey and soy or salt, then trickle in the nutty oil, combining it all into a smooth, thick dressing. Taste it and see if you fancy more vinegar or salt or sweetness and adjust the flavour to suit your palate. To make the dressing a little looser, add a small dash of hot water and whisk.
For the cabbage, set a steamer (or a colander and a pan lid work too) over a pot of boiling water. Whatever cabbage you are using, cut off the dry end of the stalk. If using hispi, quarter the cabbage lengthways through its core. If using a regular white cabbage, cut it into manageable wedges, again through the core.
Steam for about 10 minutes until it looks rather relaxed and easy to cut through. White cabbage might take closer to 15 minutes.
Let it cool down a bit and dress with the sunflower seed paste dressing (I use a brush and dab it on), putting the rest in a little bowl to spoon on extra at the table.
Sprinkle the cabbage with the reserved sunflower seeds and serve.