Sharing the recipes of her homeland Ukraine, Olia Hercules paints a vivid, nuanced picture of a cuisine and food culture that is closer to the Mediterranean than icy Eastern Europe.
Yasmin Newman

1 Jul 2015 - 11:28 AM  UPDATED 15 Jul 2015 - 4:45 PM

Why buy it? 

“When people suggest that I must be used to the cold, I realise how inextricably bound the Western vision of Ukraine is with that of Russia – vast, grey and bleak,” writes Olia Hercules.

“Yet the south of Ukraine is only an hour from Turkey by air. Our winters are mild, our summers long and hot, and our food a cornucopia of colour and flavour.”

Hercules is the voice behind Mamushka, the former Ottolenghi chef’s debut cookbook and a title dedicated to the food of Ukraine. Conflict masks the cultural and culinary identity of countless regions and such was the plight of Ukraine that Hercules felt compelled to help cast her home in different (and delicious) light.

Vibrant images throughout the book of Hercules’ family in the fields and at home, picking produce, cooking and eating, are testament to her vivid description, as is the selection of mainly light, fresh, fruit- and vegetable-laden dishes. A cursory look and you’d mistake it for Mediterranean.

The Ukrainian expat, however, who moved to London to study language before retraining in the culinary arts, is a truly evocative writer (she also pens pieces for The Guardian and presents on Food Network) and she’s succeeded in painting a vivid, nuanced portrait of the food of Ukraine and neighbouring Armenia, Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Through quirky family anecdotes and light history, Mamushka reveals a land of fragrant unrefined sunflower oil, dill-topped beetroot borshch, sweet poppy seed rolls and homemade blackcurrant vodka – and, also, nostalgia and hope.  


Cookability While a handful of Ukrainian ingredients are, as expected, hard to come by here (think kefir, horseradish leaves, parsley root and smetana), Hercules offers easy-to-find substitutes, which she regularly uses in the UK (like natural yoghurt, dill stalks, carrots and crème fraiche). The home-style dishes, passed down to Hercules from family and friends, are perfect for midweek cooking with a Ukrainian twist.


Must-cook recipe The ‘Moldovan giant cheese twist’ – an oversized coil of paper-thin flaky pastry stuffed with syr (curd cheese) and baked until crisp and golden – looks irresistible and such fun to make. The Azerbaijani chicken, traditionally with sour plums and walnuts, gives a regular Sunday night chook a run for its money.


Most surprising dish Thinly sliced frozen cured pork belly – in part for its name, ‘Ukrainian narcotics’, and for the fact you eat it with honey and chilli vodka!


Kitchen wisdom During the 1980s, there was a perpetual credit crunch in Soviet Ukraine, which meant butter was often replaced with margarine. Today, these dishes still embrace the latter. “Trust me, Berlin curd cheese biscuits and Napoleon cake are only right when a bit of margarine is thrown into the mix,” writes Hercules of two cherished Ukrainian desserts. Basically, don’t snub it till you try it.


Ideal for Eastern Europeans, global cooks, seasonal food fans, armchair travellers, rustic food lovers. 



Cook the book


1. Ukranian beetroot broth (borshch)


2. Stuffed Ukrainian pasta (varenyky)


3. Wasp nest buns (osyne gnizdo)

Wasp nest buns (osyne gnizdo)


Recipes and images from Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine and beyond by Olia Hercules (Hachette Australia, $39.99, hbk).