Want to learn about Ukrainian food? Looking for Ukrainian recipes? Read Olia Hercules’s guide.
Olia Hercules was born in Ukraine and now lives and works in the UK as a chef and food writer. Her latest book, Summer Kitchens: Recipes and Reminiscences from Every Corner of Ukraine, is out now (£26, Bloomsbury).
Ukraine is a huge country – the second biggest in Europe – and its produce and dishes are as varied as its climate and landscape. And even though quintessential dishes such as dumplings, borsch and cabbage rolls appear all over Ukraine, even they vary from region to region.
Deeper, earthier flavours are dominant in the Ukrainian highlands in the north-west. Hutsul people (highlanders) eat dishes made with corn – the most famous is banosh, a Ukrainian version of polenta.
Forests are full of mushrooms, bilberries and strawberries; trout is found in mountain rivers; people eat lamb, commonly cook with thyme, marjoram and dill, and make delicious sour cheese called vurda. Curd cheese called syr, as well as thick, homemade soured cream, are ubiquitous across the country, too, and for good reason.
Central Ukraine is famous for its dumplings – filled as varenyky and unfilled as galushki. Whole pears and plums are smoked and dried in the low heat of wood-fired ovens. In the south, tomatoes, aubergines and soft herbs such as coriander and purple basil prevail alongside dill.
And on the Black Sea shores of Odessa, you’ll find whelks, sprats and flat fish, as well as Jewish dishes such as forshmak (chopped herring).
In eastern Ukraine, they make fantastic svekolnik (cold beetroot soup) and okroshka (kefir or kvass-based cold soup with crunchy vegetables and meat stock). Indeed, the whole of Ukraine ferments vegetables expertly but you’ll find the most varied ferments in the Bessarabian south-west. Whole fermented peppers stuffed with kraut, fermented chillies, aubergines, whole pickled watermelons in barrels – all of the summer’s glut gets preserved for winter.
Olia says, “A simple batter is used all over Ukraine for frying all sorts of things, from chicken or pork schnitzel to whole river fish. I love vegetables fried in this way, and cauliflower is especially good. Normally, plain white flour is used, but buckwheat flour was a popular choice in the past and I tend to use it instead of wheat flour – it is much more flavoursome. Normally the fritters are eaten just as they are, but I like them with a spoonful of dill-and-garlic-spiked mayo.”
What to eat in Ukraine
Try these sprats fried in pancake batter in Odessa – it’s one of the most moreish regional dishes of Ukraine.
Borsch with smoked dry pears and pig’s ears at Kanapa restaurant in Kiev, or cooked by a babushka (the recipe pictured uses duck) in Poltava in central Ukraine, where this dish comes from.
Try these delicacies stuffed with salted curd cheese and dill by the Belarus border.
Cabbage and cucumber salad
This salad can be eaten in every part of Ukraine – it’s a delicious go-to, especially when dressed with another typical Ukrainian ingredient: deeply aromatic unrefined sunflower oil.
Fermented aubergines stuffed with carrots and herbs are a must-try dish from south Ukraine.
The recipes to these dishes and more are available in Olia Hercules’s latest book, Summer Kitchens: Recipes and Reminiscences from Every Corner of Ukraine, which is out now (£26, Bloomsbury). Photography by Elena Heatherwick and Joe Woodhouse.