The chef speaks to Prudence Wade about setting up the Cook for Ukraine campaign, and how food can connect everyone – regardless of where you’re from.
For Olia Hercules, cooking is normally her therapy, her safe space – but she lost this when Russia invaded her native country, Ukraine.
“For the first two months or so, I couldn’t really cook – it was a weird feeling,” the 38-year-old remembers. “Normally it’s an act of meditation and stress relief. If it’s a normal, everyday stress, I cook – especially if I make something a bit more involved, like dough, breadmaking, dumplings – something like that, it’s amazing.
“But when you’re going through trauma, it was completely different. I felt guilty eating at first, then I felt guilty cooking. It was a horrible feeling, and I couldn’t shake it off.”
She eventually felt differently while making her parents a meal in Italy after they fled Ukraine. “That’s when it lifted, and I was like yes, I’ve got it back. I’m enjoying making this borscht for them, I know it’s going to do so much good.”
Now, Hercules says she realizes cooking is “an act of resistance and defiance, and not letting Putin and his goons take all the joy away from us – because that’s what they’re trying to do”.
Recently, after some particularly bad news about the war, Hercules regressed to those feelings – but her mother brought her back to herself. “She said, ‘This is what he’s [Vladimir Putin] trying to do. Don’t let him do this – this is how we’re going to lose if we’re going to be paralyzed by fear all the time and stop living.’ So we can’t stop living – and food is life.”
Now, Hercules is learning to take better care of herself, whether that’s returning to cooking, booking herself into an embroidery course, or writing. She also set up the Cook for Ukraine campaign with friend and food writer Alissa Timoshkina, as a way of raising awareness.
“At first we thought, OK, this is going to be a hashtag, and maybe we’ll think of something – a donation situation,” she says. “We were like, it’s good enough to just do a hashtag, cook a Ukrainian meal, and educate people and keep Ukraine in the news, keep talking about it – and also this thing of connection.”
If somebody in Britain makes a Ukrainian dish, Hercules suggests: “It’s much easier for them to imagine a family that would have been having this dish somewhere in Ukraine – and now they can’t do that anymore. The headlines are there, and with time it’s only natural for people to start disassociating, and being like, OK, I need to preserve my sanity, I can’t look at this horror all the time.
“But having something cultural – especially something to do with food – keeps you connected, and also gives you strength in a way.”
The campaign’s success exceeded Hercules’ expectations, and as well as raising awareness around the situation in Ukraine, it’s also a window into the country’s unique cuisine.
She accepts there are preconceptions about Ukrainian food. “People have said it is all about potatoes and dumplings and overcooked cabbage, which was actually really hurtful. But stereotypes are stereotypes – I don’t blame people for having them.”
Instead, she wants people to know the cuisine is so much more than that – it’s “diverse, and can be fresh and herbaceous”.
Now though, Hercules doesn’t feel like she has to convince everyone that Ukraine is a rich and diverse country. It is – but she also says: “It’s time to embrace all of our potato and cabbage dishes, because they’re actually extremely delicious.”
She has one of these potato dishes in her latest cookbook, Home Food. A staple growing up, the recipe for crispy potatoes and onions is “something everybody could do – students do it – and the perfection of this dish is because you cut the potatoes in an imperfect way. [Even if] you’re striving to do really thin slices, inevitably some will be thicker than others – and that’s what you want, that’s what makes it so good. Because some of the potatoes become more crispy, and some become soft.”
Hercules rediscovered the recipe during the start of the pandemic, asking her mum about it (who, by the way, didn’t think it even counted as a recipe) – and now it’s well and truly back in her repertoire.
Through writing her new book, Hercules realized how much food can connect people – regardless of where you come from. She reflects on her time in Italy (she spent a year there during university as part of an exchange program), saying: “When I lived in Italy, I immediately connected to my fellow students” through food.
In her halls of residence, “We became friends with loads of Italian students living there – they were from all over, especially from the south of Italy. A few of them used to receive parcels from their families – one of the boys’ papa was a butcher, so he’d receive hunks of amazing cuts of meat and jars with what they call ‘sugo de la mama’ – like tomato sauce, either with meatballs or whatever. And we’d all benefit from it, because it’s so delicious .
This immediately transported Hercules back in time, to when her older brother went to university in Odessa when she was 12. “I remember my mum packing these big boxes, and once she even packed a whole roasted duck into the box, and you’d go to the bus station, and you’d pay someone to take the box on the bus, and then he’d receive it on the other end.”
When she first arrived in Italy, Hercules admits her grasp of the language was rudimentary – but she managed to communicate this story to her new friends, and find common ground.
“[Food] breaks barriers, and immediately makes you feel closer,” she reflects. “I think the book has become that in many ways, reflecting across cultures. I realized food and humor have been the two ways for me, in each culture I experienced or tried to assimilate into – as soon as there was some kind of a connection in what we ate, and as soon as I understood the humor in another language , I was like OK, this is it. I feel at home now.”
Home Food: Recipes To Comfort And Connect by Olia Hercules is published by Bloomsbury Publishing, priced £26. Photography by Joe Woodhouse. Available now.