There comes a time when a country breaks free from its culinary stereotypes, or simply starts to embrace them. Since the publication of her first cookbook Mamushka five years ago, Olia Hercules has been reframing our views of the food from her homeland of Ukraine – the second-largest nation in Europe.
The London-based chef and food writer – who has just released her third cookbook, Summer Kitchens – is originally from a town called Kakhovka, in Ukraine's south. Here, Hercules grew up with a summer kitchen – a sanctuary for food preparation and a space to curb the summer heat. Through this space – a commonality across the country – she reveals the richness and breadth of Ukraine’s regions, cultures, climates, seasons and seven borders. While borscht is “quintessentially a very Ukrainian dish because of its regionality” Hercules says, there is also so much more.
“It really helps thinking of it like we do about Italian food – earthy and rich up north, Ukrainians too make polenta and use lots of mushrooms … and [people] grow amazing tomatoes and aubergines (eggplant) in the south.” But it’s the way this bounty is used that is equally surprising.
Lyok, a garlic and herb paste normally used as a base in broths, is repurposed in a zucchini recipe as a dressing. Soft tarragon, dill and parsley with woody thyme result in a “flavour unlike any I have ever experienced”, she says.
Fermentation and pickling, an ancient Ukrainian practice, is placed front and centre in Summer Kitchens. “It is so central to summer kitchens, that’s one of their main functions to have this space to do all of your … pickling and preserving … and also to have a kind of special workshop to do it.”
An extraordinary example of fermentation is in central Ukraine where whole apples are fermented in a pumpkin purée. “The result is so beautiful, [it] almost tastes of summer berries and some of the apple flavour goes into the pumpkin purée and vice versa.”
“It really helps thinking of it like we do about Italian food - earthy and rich up north, Ukrainians too make polenta and use lots of mushrooms … and [people] grow amazing tomatoes and aubergines (eggplant) in the south.”
Pickles are also used in cooking. Hercules highly recommends the fermented Gagauz stuffed peppers. Whole peppers are hollowed out and stuffed with cabbage and carrot, then placed in brine with chillies and tomatoes. The result, she believes, are the most delicious fermented pickles in the world.
In Transcarpathia at the tip of Ukraine’s west bordering Romania, Slovakia and Hungary, paprika is a key ingredient. The book's recipe for Sashko’s bogracz stew includes three types of meat, “all tinged with this really superb paprika, some sweet, some spicy”, the author says. Whole vegetables are placed into it, “so in the end you … get this whole onion … saturated in these paprika juices”.
Fruits, berries, pastes, poppy seeds, nuts and curd cheeses feature in the book's Ukrainian desserts. Potato-dough dumplings for example, are filled with ripe plums at the peak of the season and served with crème fraîche or honey, and steamed bilberry doughnuts are dipped in butter and then rolled in crushed nuts and sugar.
Despite the incredible diversity and lure of lesser-known dishes, borscht and its accomplices persist in Ukraine for a reason. “For a long time I had a real, deep-rooted complex about Ukraine’s cabbage and potato dishes … but now I embrace them all – none more so than a delicious braised cabbage.”
Hercules shares her mother’s recipe, “a pretty common one” apparently, but extraordinary enough to capture the attention of Hercules' friend Sean who wrote: “I cannot convey how much I loved the cabbage last night, so amazing. It goes so far to disprove the stereotype. I had dreams about it.”
The resulting recipe, "braised cabbage of Sean’s dreams", almost presents like a one-pot pasta dish: tagliatelle-sized strips of cabbage are hand-massaged with salt, cooked with onions and caraway seeds then stirred through with red capsicum followed by gently warmed tomato juice with crème fraîche.
Summer Kitchens is an extensive tribute to Hercules' love of her homeland and the undeniable comfort its food provokes – whether through, or beyond, its stereotypes.