It's almost like a scene from a film: a tiny kitchen with walls painted a gloriously strong green, a small table, bookshelves groaning with recipe books and notebooks in multiple languages, old black and white photos of Soviet-era ancestors, the radio playing quietly in the corner.And in the middle of it all—busy boiling, chopping, stewing—is a young, beautiful, brightly head-scarfed woman.
This is Olia Hercules. Born in Ukraine, raised in Greek Cyprus, now living and working in London, she wants British diners to see Eastern Europe food as more than just borsht, cabbage, and general stodge.
"The reason Eastern European food has such a bad reputation is because of what journalists had to eat when they went to the Soviet Union in the 1970s," she explains. "But of course it was going to be awful. Food all over the world in restaurants at that time wasn't great, so can you imagine the Soviet Union in those days? You can't judge a huge part of the world on that."Whatever you imagine the cuisine of the Soviet Union in the 70s to be, the food Hercules makes is a world away from it. Today, for example, she is crafting mini versions of a dish called manti."It's Turkish really but they eat them a lot in Uzbekistan," she says. "My grandma always made them."Manti are a kind of dumpling and before you imagine suet-loaded starch-balls to float in a gelatinous soup, they're more like giant parcels of ravioli or dim sum. The thin dough cases are made from flour, eggs, and water, before being filled with beef or pork and steamed. Totally delicious.Hercules was born in the south of Ukraine, a melting pot of different people and their gastronomic cultures.
"The south is near Crimea, so we had the Tartars there and we had the indigenous population," she says. "To the east, you've got Russia and then you've got Moldova nearby too. We grew up with a mix of different dishes and some of them were quite—not Middle Eastern—but definitely Turkic."Hercules herself is also a conglomerate of different cultures.
"I've got an aunty who's Armenian but she grew up in Azerbaijan. One of my grandmas is Siberian," she explains. "The Bolsheviks weren't particularly nice to her and her family, so she left, jumped on the train, and went down to Uzbekistan to look for a better life. On the way there, she met my grandfather who's Ukrainian and they had my dad in Tashkent. Tashkent was called the 'City of Bread' so all the people who were starving in Siberia made their way into central Asia. She picked up a few dishes there and then they moved to Ukraine."All of this history can be seen in Hercules' kitchen: little recipes written in Cyrillic characters pinned to the fridge, her recipe notebooks with writing in both English and Ukrainian, jars of things sitting fermenting."I'm really into anything that tastes a bit funky," Hercules explains. "Fermentation is a very Eastern European thing. In winter, fermentation and in summer, cooking with herbs. We can't live without it. Oh and broths, loads of broths."
She tells the story of this cultural mash-up in her new compendium of dishes from Eastern Europe, called Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine & Beyond. In my mind's eye, I'm picturing Hercules' girlhood self, tugging at her grandmother's skirts, learning the old ways of Ukrainian culinary tradition first hand.Before I get too carried away, she quickly shatters the daydream."I was always involved in eating everything but I have to confess that I wasn't a very keen cook," admits Hercules.
Her Damascus Road conversion to the kitchen was not in Ukraine, or anywhere in Eastern Europe, but in Sicily, where she was living as part of her Italian degree studies. The owner of the restaurant where she was working as a waitress gave her a bowl of spaghetti with sea urchins stirred through. Things were never the same."I'll never forget that moment," Hercules says "I couldn't believe that you can make something that tastes so incredible with something so simple. When I came back to England, I became an obsessed home cook. I was dreaming about it all the time. Which was bizarre because I wasn't into cooking at all when I was younger."
She got a job working with Yotam Ottolenghi and then as a food stylist, and from there a series of coincidences and chance encounters led to her writing a book capturing the foods of her childhood."Everything we ate was ingredient-led and so seasonal," adds Hercules.The food of her granny had all the hallmarks of the foods she loved to cook and, via Skype calls to her family, she learned how to make these old dishes.When it came to recording the recipes though, she had to be more precise.
"I went home to Ukraine and followed my mum and my aunty around with scales and measuring spoons. They kept batting me off saying, 'No! That's not how we cook,'" Hercules explains. "We know by feel and sight what's right, but I had to try and document it for people who don't. I would have preferred to write loosely about these dishes, but everything's carefully measured and triple tested. Still, I love it when I hear about people making their own versions."
Hercules wanted Mamushka to be more than a collection of recipes."Cookbooks don't just have to be about made-up recipes from a chef. They can be whatever you want," she says. "To me personally, I like recipes and I like cookbooks because of the stories they might tell about a culture or a part of the world and I think it's interesting. I've got a particular anthropological slant. It's interesting to find all these things our grandmothers used to make."
Fortunately for Hercules, recent months have seen a resurgence in affection for old methods and traditional recipes, from fermentation to pickles, preserves, and stews."It's so funny to me. All these things are in fashion but that's what I grew up with. All of a sudden it's the cool thing to do," she says. "But I'm not selling 'glow.' I'm cooking with pork fat and butter—which I think is better than tasteless chia seeds—and anything that has a meaty stock, a nice amount of fat, broken up with something fresh and acidic, like sorrel. Everybody's got this fear now about what they eat—it's all pseudo science guys!—just relax and eat."With a delicious plate of dumplings on the table in front of me, I don't need to be told twice.