Ukrainian Chef Olia Hercules on food and motherhood

“I went to Ukraine and we all sat down one evening – me, my mum and my auntie – and talked. It was a beautiful process. It is an ode to my family really, and to my country.” Food stylist and former Ottolenghi chef Olia Hercules on her cookbook – Mamushka – and motherhood…

Arguably with her book Mamushka, Olia Hercules, food stylist and a former Ottolenghi chef, has changed the way we think about eastern European food. Her recipes have appeared in all the main newspapers and she has been a guest on programmes like Saturday Kitchen. But for her, the cookbook is an ode to her family and her country. She tells us about the food culture she was raised in, and how she is passing that down to her son.

What does Mamushka mean?
It’s an old-fashioned way of saying mummy, but it was also the name of a dance in The Addams Family. All of the foreign films we used to see portrayed eastern Europeans negatively, but this was the first time they were shown as they are, in a positive and funny way. When we were kids found it amusing and we started to call our mum mamushka after that.

Mamushka -

Had you always planned to write a cookbook?
Not really! Maybe it was in the back of my head. It came out of a difficult time – war had broken out in Ukraine and my mum didn’t know what was going to happen, if the Russians were going to take the area where she lives, which is close to Crimea. At that moment in time, I didn’t have a job, so I said let’s write the recipes down. Through a chain of incredible luck and coincidence it became a book a couple of months later. It wasn’t that I was looking for it, it just happened.

The book is more than just recipes though?
Yes, once we started talking about the recipes I really wanted stories connected to them. I went to Ukraine and we all sat down one evening – me, my mum and my auntie – and talked. It was a beautiful process and extremely emotional. Then I followed them round for a month with measuring spoons taking notes of how they made everything. When the first copy of the book arrived my mum happened to be here in England and that’s when we really cried. It was really touching. It is an ode to my family really, and to my country. I hope that comes across.

How different is the food culture you grew up with in Ukraine to UK food culture now?
We definitely didn’t shop in supermarkets, except maybe to buy dried stuff. We got everything either from markets or grew our own. My mum grows lots of incredible stuff.

And our main meal of the day is at 1pm and that’s a big family get together so you pop home for an hour and have a really lovely meal together and then in the evening you eat something light.

My son and I have our own thing here in England, so that when he comes to Ukraine it’s not a problem to adapt. He loves it.

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Since the book you seem to be super-busy: styling, writing, running workshops, and so on. How do you juggle parenting with work?
Being a single parent isn’t easy, but my son’s dad is great, and I’ve got a big network of really amazing friends who help out. My son gives me a bigger push because I don’t have time to think about things, I just have to do them. The summer is really busy for me, so he’s gone to stay with my mum in Ukraine and is having a great time. But I can’t wait for him to be back and for our routine to restart. I need it actually. To be super super busy and not even have time to breath, that’s when I slide.

Do you feel you parent differently to UK mums?
I don’t do snacks, and that’s one thing that I think is Ukrainian. It’s actually becoming really hard, because after school I take him to the park and everyone else has got a snack. I tell him he’s fine because he’s about to have a big dinner. We don’t do snacks, get over it. But it’s hard for him when everyone else is having them. I grew up with the culture that you eat three times a day and that’s it. Food is food, it shouldn’t be that some things are treats and others aren’t, even sweets.

Otherwise I’m a relaxed parent. I believe as long as parents are relaxed, their children will behave in a relaxed manner. Maybe I’m lucky but he’s really chilled out and eats everything and is really brave. He’ll eat fish eyes, which I’d never touch. He’s more adventurous than me I think.

What’s a typical Ukrainian breakfast?
To be honest with you, what I remember from my childhood in Ukraine is buckwheat cooked in milk with sugar and butter. It’s very Soviet! But you know how people rave about cornflake milk, when they grew up on cornflakes – that taste for them is what buckwheat is for me. And actually bizarrely, I used to drink coffee with condensed milk from quite a young age. It was completely acceptable even before I was a teenager.

Now I’m really bad at breakfast but if I do make breakfast my thing is loads of vegetables. In the summer I’ll put a couple of squashed tomatoes in there and some eggs, poached in the juice. Usually I add a Georgian chilli sauce which is lovely, and eat it all with a lump of bread. In Georgia they have a nice tradition of lovely fresh bread with a salty hard cheese, and some beautiful tomatoes and cucumbers. I really like that delicious breakfast: some good quality bread, good cheese and vegetables is perfect really.

My favourite breakfast is my mum’s mylintsi – they’re thin pancakes. If she’s around my son will ask for them every morning. As she cooks them she piles them up but between each one she puts a knob of butter on top, so while it’s still hot it melts just enough to be delicious. She puts a little bit of hot water in the batter just before she fries them so it kind of cooks the batter to make them extra soft and fluffy. I can’t explain it to you they’re just incredible.

Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine & beyond by Olia Hercules, Photography by Kris Kirkham, published by Mitchell Beazley, £25,