The British people cook Ukrainian borshch, varenyky and other exotic and previously unknown dishes. Olia Hercules, a Ukrainian chef, culinary writer and food stylist who has lived in London for almost twenty years, has taken the lead to introduce the British to traditional Ukrainian cuisine. Her books with recipes of Ukrainian and other Eastern European cuisines have been translated into more than ten languages. Every year the chef goes on an expedition to Ukraine and continues to study the diversity of our cuisine through authentic recipes from different regions.
To taste Ukrainian dishes in London, one can go to one of the ten Ukrainian or Eastern European cuisine restaurants of the British capital. They serve holubtsi, varenyky, borshch, freshly baked bread, and sometimes they even serve Ukrainian beer and wine. Ukrainian cuisine in London acquired a new voice in 2015, when chef Olia Hercules began to promote it through dishes and books.
Olia’s first book, Mamushka, introducing the British to Ukrainian dishes and some customs, became especially popular. Every year the chef goes on an expedition to Ukraine and continues to study the diversity of our cuisine through authentic recipes from different regions.
One of the trips took place in 2021. On September 4, a group of British people entered the Mukachevo train from the Kyiv railway station platform. An hour after departure, they got out boiled eggs, bread, and tomatoes. Someone started a Ukrainian song. Thus began the fifth food tour of Ukraine, organised by Olia Hercules and the British team Experience Ukraine & Beyond, specialising in Ukraine tours. The group stopped in Nyzhnie Selyshche and explored Zakarpattia for a week hiking in the mountains, visiting markets and churches and, of course, trying new food. They went to the cheese factory, tasted brynza and vurda, made varenyky and manty, and cooked tuzluk. The expedition ended with music and dancing. This is how Olia Hercules is introducing the British to Ukraine.
Olia Hercules was born in Kakhovka, Tavria. Her parents still live there; Olia visits them at least once a year. The rest of the time, she lives in London – writes books, raises her sons, grows flowers and, of course, cooks. She says that it is the memories of childhood that warm and inspire her throughout her life. She fondly remembers family evening gatherings near the Dnipro or an old walnut tree next to her grandmother’s summer kitchen. Everyone gathered at the table and told stories that made people both cry and laugh. For her, the combination of nature, family and food is still the most important thing.
“The brightest memories for me are the moments when we went near the Dnipro for a walk, did some gardening with mom, or ate strawberries and cucumbers in the summer (the earliest ones).”
Olia Hercules has lived in the UK for over twenty years. In her London apartment, there are many flowerpots: monsteras, ficus, sansevieria, dahlias, zamioculcas luxuriate in pots on window sills, chairs, shelves and just on the floor. In the courtyard, the woman planted a small garden — beets, wild strawberries, sorrel, spinach, lettuce, oregano, marjoram, edible nasturtium flowers, rhubarb — all that can be grown under the London sun. Plants are Olia’s great passion.
Little Olia had asthma, and from the age of 12, she lived with her mother in Cyprus for some time, where she felt much better. It was both an adventure and a challenge because she didn’t know English then. But thanks to perseverance and endless reading of newspapers and books, she managed to master the language quite well in two years:
“I still keep some books from that time — for example, Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” from the school curriculum. I wrote a translation over almost every word, and that’s how I learned English, and then it got easier and easier.”
And in less than a year, Olia passed the English exam, one of the three in the class with an “A” (the highest grade). The woman considers learning a foreign language to be her most outstanding achievement:
“It was like survival. Books are, of course, great. And children are also an achievement. But at that time, it was so difficult to adapt to a new life. It is not easy for a thirteen-year-old girl with zero knowledge of English to get an “A” on an exam. But my emotions then can not be expressed in words.”
After graduating, she entered the University of Warwick in Coventry, UK, where she studied at the Faculty of International Relations and mastered the Italian language. At the age of 20, finding herself in Italy for a year, Olia watched the local students in the dormitory preparing simple and delicious food from the trimmings they brought from home, just like those Olya’s brother got from their mom during his studies in Odesa. “There is a lot in common between two seemingly dissimilar countries!” – Olia shares. It was then that the future chef became interested in cooking. She started with simple dishes, such as spaghetti, and later this interest became her passion, which Olia did not abandon in London. She completed her master’s program in the British capital and stayed there since the city seemed hospitable and comfortable.
She got her first job at the age of 23 as a reporter for a film magazine. During the 2008 crisis, Olia resigned and decided to turn her passion for cooking from a hobby into a profession: she was ready to become a chef and dedicate all her time to this business. Olia dreamed of a cooking course and wanted to take out a loan to study. However, her parents supported their daughter and her interests, and in 2008, Olia graduated from the Leiths School of Food & Wine in London. After studying, she worked a lot in several restaurants and sometimes 18 hours a day. It wasn’t easy, but Olia says she just did what she liked without thinking about success.
Olia organised the evenings of Ukrainian cuisine and culture in London. She shares that the British became interested in Ukraine after the Revolution of Dignity, and it was essential to simplify certain stereotypes and show the country exactly as it is. That’s why she began to learn more about customs and got interested in recipes, which she collected on expeditions to Ukraine. On one such trip, the chef gathered information from Ukrainians about borshch since there are as many recipes as there are families in Ukraine. For example, in Polissia, she found a woman who prepares fish borsch with small eels; in Poltava region with smoked pears; in Tavria, they put a large galushka (dumpling) in and cook it in borshch, adding dill and garlic later.
“When everyone was actively discussing the news with borshch, I was often asked which country’s national dish is borshch. Ukraine, of course. It exists in other countries, but from my own experience, I can say that regional differences only indicate that borsch is 100% Ukrainian.”
Prior to the publication of her first book, Mamushka, Olia worked in restaurants and catering. She later developed recipes for a startup, which eventually closed, and she lost her job. The beginning of 2014 turned out to be difficult for Olia because, in addition to unemployment, she was concerned about the events in Ukraine, the occupation of Crimea and the safety of her relatives:
“It was a terrible period. I didn’t know if my parents would have to move. Maybe to Kherson, because my brother and his family were there. I remember waking up at three in the morning and reading the news in a panic. Usually, I’m not afraid of anything, but that was a time when I felt terrified. I couldn’t imagine that something like this could happen at all.”
Sometime around that time, she began writing for The Guardian. A literary agent saw her published recipes and got excited about creating a book about little-known Ukrainian cuisine in Great Britain. She invited Olga to develop in this area, increase the number of her followers on Instagram (because the author’s recognition is vital for future books) and to meet in two years.
The idea inspired Olia. She called her mother, wrote down recipes, and found a photographer for a test shoot. In two months, she received three offers from publishers to write a cookbook. The writer chose the publishing house that came up with the idea to illustrate the book with photos from Ukraine.
She still remembers the moment when she wrote 20 pages of a synopsis for the agent:
“I will never forget that day. I’d put to sleep my eldest son Sasha, who was then two years old, at eight o’clock in the evening. I went to the kitchen and started writing. The next thing I remember is dawn, around 4:30 or 5 in the morning. I finished the work and sent it to the agent. Then, within a month, I signed a contract with the publisher.”
In 2015, the first book by Olia Hercules, Mamushka, was published. It was immediately successful: 150,000 copies were sold and translated into seven languages. This is how the author declared Ukraine in Great Britain and showed that Ukrainian food is delicious and varied:
“When writing Mamushka, I was often asked: ‘Oh, are you going to write a book about traditional Ukrainian cuisine with potatoes, cabbage and varenyky?’. I had to tell everyone that Ukraine is divided into regions just like France or Italy. There are forests in the north and steppe; there is the Black Sea and Mediterranean climate in the South. Thanks to seasonality, the dishes are diverse; it is not just potatoes, cabbage and varenyky’.”
Olia cooks many dishes from potatoes and cabbage, because, she says, they are delicious. But in the first book, she deliberately avoided cabbage dishes to show readers the diversity of Ukrainian cuisine. She didn’t add specific recipes, such as her mother’s stewed cabbage with red pepper and tomato sauce. Instead, they were included in her third book, Summer kitchens.
A year has passed since the publication of Mamushka, and once in a conversation with the photographer Elena Heatherwick, Olia recalled the summer kitchen, which she remembers from childhood. Elena was then shooting for the author’s second book called Kaukasis (“Caucasus”) with recipes from the Caucasus, namely Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Iran, Russia and Turkey, released later in 2017.
It was something new for Elena, and they decided to portray Ukraine as such through photos and recipes from summer kitchens. So, together with Olia’s husband, Joe Woodhouse (also a photographer and chef), they travelled to Ukraine through almost all the regions (except the temporarily occupied territories) for more than 10,000 kilometres. They prepared dishes according to ancient Ukrainian recipes, asked people about their summer kitchens, collected stories, and took photos. It was important for Olia to find old recipes that were in use before the Soviet era. She was told how authentic cookbooks were burned in Romania, and Olia said that the same thing could have happened in Ukraine.
“I believe that this is the mission of my generation, because we still remember life in the Soviet Union, but we think differently. Therefore, it is our responsibility to rediscover and preserve old recipes and stories. And if you still have the opportunity to learn your grandmother’s recipes, do it.”
The Summer kitchens project was initially intended as an article for The Guardian. However, Olia collected enough material for a whole book, which was published in 2020 by Bloomsbury Publishing. The author says that the primary purpose of the book was to show the Ukrainian identity and history of previous generations, through authentic culinary customs, and that we must remember and return these traditions to everyday use.
In addition to material from her own expedition, Olia supplemented her book with recollections of memories from others that she received after she did a callout on Instagram. She asked people to send her recipes and stories about summer kitchens from regions where she did not have time to visit. Olia was literally flooded with emails. People from different parts of Ukraine and the world shared rare recipes, memories of their childhood. These stories became a favourite part of the author’s book because it was important for her to give Ukrainians the opportunity to speak through this book:
“Ukraine is Ukrainians. I had the opportunity to travel while collecting materials for Summer kitchens, and I met so many wonderful, generous and kind people. For me, they are all great inspirations.”
The cover of the book depicts a summer kitchen and branches of yellow cherries sprouting from its roof. It was painted by Ukrainian illustrator Anastasiia Stefurak. Olia says that the cover is connected with a story from her childhood: her grandfather decided to build a summer kitchen after moving, only he was hindered by a branch of yellow cherries. Instead of cutting it, he allowed the cherries to grow through the roof. Olia calls this act “a special kind of love and respect for the earth for everything it gives us”:
“Ukraine, for me, is my family, ancestors, shared past, and traumas. These are the stories I grew up with, as well as our land. I admire people who promote not only recipes but also the customs that our grandparents cherished. It was very meaningful to them, growing plants, caring for animals, eating meat without throwing away too much.”
Olia’s culinary publications are niche literature. But she manages to make money by writing books, despite the difficult times of the British publishing market. Of course, in addition to writing, the author is engaged in various freelance projects, raises two sons and conducts expeditions to the regions of Ukraine for foreigners.
Varenyky with salty cottage cheese
Success came to Olia Hercules naturally: she tried different professions, worked hard and did what she loved. Only later did she realise that she was living a dream life. Her parents and family helped her a lot. Olia says that her father was making sunflower oil and dreamed that his daughter would become a businesswoman, but the girl with a creative nature protested. However, in the end, she combined creativity and business.
Olia inherited her love of cooking from her mother, although, she admits, it didn’t happen right away. As a student, she invited university friends to visit Ukraine. Seeing their delight in the traditional dishes prepared by her mother, Olia realised that Ukrainian cuisine is not only delicious because of her special sentiment towards her family:
“For a long time, I reflected on the fact of why these varenyky affect me so much. I remember coming back from school on one specific day. I was a little sad, so I asked my mother what she had cooked. She replied: “Varenyky”. I’m like, “With cheese?” – “Yes”. I remember this day as one of the happiest in my life.”
Olia’s favourite Ukrainian dish has become a kind of ritual with her mother. Every time the woman plans to visit her parents, her mother asks what to cook. And the answer is always the same:
“Varenyky with salty cottage cheese. My mom makes those triangular ones. I was once asked in Lviv why they are so triangular. I don’t know, my mother does that. They need that cottage cheese, salty-salty, and a lot of butter. My grandmother called it “skim”. And the contrast — salty cheese, hot varenyky, such delicate dough my mom makes, and then the cold sour cream. It’s just, okay; I can die tomorrow. It’s fantastic, and I love it.”
Photo by Slava Koshan
Olia says that she can eat thirty of them; it is simply impossible to stop. The recipe for the perfect triangular varenyky can be found in Mamushka book with the comment: “They can feed up to 8 Brits or one hungry Ukrainian.”
Even though the woman knows all the recipes by heart, she still opens her book when she cooks. At home, Olia loves to cook borsch, which her eldest son adores, and its vegetarian version for her husband. Olia met her husband through collaboration in a culinary project they worked on one day in Spain. Two months after the first meeting, the woman proposed to Joe. Joe came to Ukraine for the first time to celebrate the birthday of Olia’s dad and immediately felt at home. Olia jokes that in her past life, her husband was Ukrainian, and her parents loved him more than their daughter. They work together on books: Joe supplied Summer kitchens with photos, they go on expeditions together, raise two children and experiment with food. Joe is the head chef in the family, and his culinary skills are unsurpassed, Olia says.
In addition to promoting Ukraine through food, Olia organises food tours of Ukraine for foreigners together with friends. They climb mountains, meet local shepherds, taste local cheeses and milk, and gather mushrooms and herbs. Olia prepares special dishes on the fire, such as tuzluk or bograch, and conducts workshops. Europeans enthusiastically taste something new and take part in various activities.
“For me, Ukrainian cuisine and the way we treat guests is a sign of the heartfulness of Ukrainians because we are generally very generous, but especially with our heartfulness.”
In 2021, Olia organised a food tour to Zakarpattia for a dozen people from Britain and the United States. Next year she plans to show Europeans the Tavrian steppe. And although the author borrows recipes for books from many Eastern European countries, the primary source of inspiration for her are Ukrainian dishes.
“Ukrainian cuisine is a synergy of people, land, sun, as well as a particular approach to gardening.”
Olia shares that for her, Ukraine is a place of strength, so she is considering the opportunity of living here with her husband when the children go to university:
“My family, ancestors and their history are a large part of my identity. Of course the landscapes, soil, sun, climate, and sky mean a lot to me as well. The sky, it is huge in Tavria. I miss it so much. My mom always says that in London, it seems like clouds are just above your forehead. But when I return to Ukraine, I finally feel free.”
The project “Anthropological and ethnographic expedition by Ukraїner: Ukrainians in Great Britain” is realized within the program “Culture for change” with the support of the Ukrainian Cultural Fund (Ukraine) and the British Council (Great Britain). Ukraїner is responsible for the content of this multimedia story, which might not represent the official position of the Ukrainian Cultural Fund and the British Council.
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