Olia Hercules: ‘When Russia invaded Ukraine, I couldn’t cook for the first month’

·4 min read

When Russia invaded Ukraine, I couldn’t eat. And I definitely couldn’t cook for the first month and a half. It was the feeling of guilt. I just felt, “How can I even cook anything when there’s such horror happening everywhere else in Ukraine?” Then, at the first event I did for #CookForUkraine, this woman I’d never met before came up to me and said, “I’ve brought you some broth.” I heated it up at home and had it out of a cup and it was just so life-giving. Then she started sending me a broth every week, and she’s been doing it for two months now. And that’s what I’ve been sustaining myself on.

When I was writing Mamushka, people would say, “Oh, you’re writing a Ukrainian cookbook? Is that about dumplings and potatoes?” I understand it: stereotypes are stereotypes, but hopefully I’ve been able to break some of them. Even when I spoke of Ukraine back then, it was like, “Is that Russia?” No, it’s not fucking Russia! Our culture has for years and years and years been suppressed. Language, food, everything.

I only really realised the scope of my mum and my dad’s skills after I trained to be a chef. Watching Mum make filo pastry, stretching it out with her hands, then spinning it around in the air like a pizzaiolo – it’s like she’s spinning webs. I know loads of professional chefs who would not be able to do that.

Mamushka came out of a big jumble of things that were happening to me in 2014. I lost my job, I was a single mum, my son Sasha was nearly two years old. I was alone in the UK with no job and no prospects. Parallel to that, the Maidan [uprising] happens and the war starts in the Crimea. So it began, actually, as me writing down names of recipes in my notebook as a way of just doing something, and not sitting around and plunging myself into depression. Then I ended up getting this book deal, miraculously, everything came together. I never looked for an agent or to publish, it was just for me.

When I was giving birth to my son, Sasha, my first child, the midwives were like, “Are you OK?” And I was like, “I’m a chef! I’ve done 18-hour shifts at Ottolenghi, I can do this!” And I did. It was a really fast, efficient birth. Working in a busy restaurant kitchen definitely gives you insane stamina, for sure. You learn and your body learns it as well.

The only food I really don’t like is avocado. I don’t get it. I mean, it’s OK in guacamole, when there’s loads of lime juice and flavourings. But avocado on toast? I’d rather eat a shoe.

Coming to the UK to go to university was a shock, to be honest. There had been some attempts at cajoling me into cooking when I was at school by my dad and my mum. But I burned everything. My heart wasn’t in it. Then, because I studied Italian, I did an Erasmus exchange in Italy, and everybody in my halls of residence, especially the boys, weirdly, were incredible cooks. Even if it was very simple, like aglio olio e peperoncino or something, there was just this flair and energy. So I fell in love with the idea of cooking and I just became obsessed.

I’m slowly, slowly getting back into cooking now. I finally convinced my parents to leave the south of Ukraine, which is occupied by Russia. They drove through Europe and eventually ended up in Italy, where my cousin has just recently bought a little house. When they arrived, I made them borscht and handmade Ukrainian-style pasta and a sauce. That was the first time throughout this whole period that I actually enjoyed and was excited about cooking. Yeah, it made me feel good.

Related: Cook for Ukraine: Olia Hercules’ springtime recipes

My favourite things

Food
My death-row, apocalypse dish would be my mum’s Ukrainian dumplings called varenyky, which are filled with her homemade cheese that we call syr. It just wires some really crazy things in my brain and makes me release all of the endorphins.

Drink
The first word that springs to my head is wiiiiine! I really miss Ukrainian wine: natural, low-intervention wine of a kind that is very fashionable now. It would be a dream if I could drink that all summer.

Place to eat
For sure Towpath on the canal in London, also 40 Maltby Street and Rochelle Canteen. You get the gist: restaurants that use really good ingredients and you can feel the skill in cooking, but it’s not fussy.

Dish to make
Working with really soft, leavened dough is my favourite thing. I find the whole process extremely therapeutic and rewarding, and I love the smell.

Olia Hercules’s new book, Home Food, is published on 7 July (Bloomsbury, £26). #CookForUkraine is at justgiving.com

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