Digital editor Alex chats to storyteller and food writer Olia Hercules about her upbringing in Ukraine. Olia talks about long summer days in her grandparents’ kitchen, foraging in the forests of the north and visiting the sparkling fishing towns of the south. We also learn about the country’s national dish, borscht, as well as how to pickle and preserve vibrant summer veg for the winter months.
Olia on the beauty and diversity of her homeland
All over the Ukraine, we’ve got these special outhouses – four walls, a roof and a little porch – but inside it’s just a kitchen. They exist because Ukraine is incredibly hot in the summer and people didn’t have air-con. But the summer is when you would do the most cooking, so they built these kitchen workshops and they’re situated close to vegetable plots or smallholdings. People grow a lot of vegetables and some even have orchards. This is where, apart from everyday meals, you would do all of your pickling come September, when the vegetable glut of the summer is put into jars to eat over winter.
Something particular to Ukraine is unrefined sunflower oil, which we use a lot as a finishing oil, both on fresh salads and also on fermented veg in winter. It tastes like pressed, toasted sunflower seeds and it’s incredible. Almost the same intensity as a sesame oil would have in that nutty, rounded and sweet quality. In the 1990s, everybody went off it and suddenly got into bad-quality olive oil. But now, in the past 10 years, people have rediscovered that we’ve got this amazing oil and they are wondering, why did we stop using that?
By the sea
Odessa is a beautiful city, right by the Black Sea, and it’s got a very unique food culture. And, in terms of seafood, they do these little fish – an equivalent in the UK would be sprats. You butterfly them, grab about four at once by the tails, cover in batter and then into a hot pan to fry together, with the tails sticking out. You have it with something simple, a little bit of lemon or a bit of mayo.
Elisabeth Luard once said about Romania that it’s like the Galapagos Islands, in culinary terms. And I think Ukraine can be described in that way as well because you’ve got almost Mediterranean vibes with tomatoes and aubergines, etc. And then you’ve got very Nordic crayfish and salted fish, and then all of the vegetable ferments. Then there are loads of Turkish influences, as well, so it’s a really interesting mix of cultures.
More of Olia’s favourite Ukrainian ingredients
Similar to Italian lardo, it’s a kind of cured, salted pork fat. Sometimes we freeze it and just slice and eat with pickles and a shot of vodka. You can also use it as a cooking fat, or bash with garlic, salt and dill to stir through borscht at the very end of cooking.
You get crayfish in rivers all over Ukraine. When I was a kid, boys would sell them by the side of the road. You’d boil them in big pan with salt and dill tops, and then have a massive platter of them.
In winter there was no unseasonal veg so we ate root veg, ferments and pickles. The first fresh cucumbers were these small prickly, aromatic ones. They tasted sweet and it would almost make your head spin biting into them.
Olia Hercules is the author of three cookbooks. Her latest, Summer Kitchens: Recipes and Reminiscences from Every Corner of Ukraine, is out now (£26, Bloomsbury).