Ukrainian cuisine with Olia Hercules
and her recipe for oxtail borsch

Market in Ukraine

Ukraine

The earthy flavour of beetroot and as many as 70 other ingredients appear in different variations to make the nourishing, sustaining soup known as borsch, popular throughout Eastern Europe and Northern Asia. For Ukrainian born cookery writer Olia Hercules it is the taste of home - her mother’s version rich with oxtail and a base of seasonal vegetables, grown with care and harvested in their prime. Olia shares the secrets of Ukrainian cuisine, which lie in the quality of the produce and the way it is respected by those who nurture it from field to kitchen.

What food did you grow up eating?
“I grew up in Ukraine until the age of 12, so it was mostly Ukrainian food until then. My dad has links to Azerbaijan and Armenia, so some of that food would be cooked as well, but whatever kind of cuisine it was, it would always be seasonal.

“A lot of it was home grown and there was an abundance of fresh vegetables and fruit in the summer. In the south of Ukraine, where I’m from, it gets really hot. So we would walk down the streets of my hometown Kakhovka and an apricot would fall on your head, or your shoes would get stained by sour cherries or mulberries. We didn’t really appreciate it back then and would just find it annoying! But now I wish I had mulberry stained feet…

“Winters used to be a lot colder then than they are now, so we’d reach into the cellar and get all the ferments out. Basically anything from aubergines to tomatoes, or different kinds of vegetables mixed together. Melons, apples, cucumbers – anything, really. Ukrainians tend not to call it fermentatsiya (which sounds a bit too scientific), but rather kvashennia, which roughly translates to ‘make sour’. It’s an intrinsic aspect of our culture.”

It sounds like food played a huge role during your childhood! Were your parents cooks too?
“No, but both my grandmothers, especially my maternal grandmother, are formidable cooks. My mum, who learned from her mother, is just incredible. I call her ‘dough ninja’, you should see her spin filo pastry in the air! My dad’s a really good cook as well. He wouldn’t cook as often as my mum did, because he always used to work really hard. But whenever I was ill he would make this delicious soup that I would always eat, even though I wouldn’t eat anything my mum made while I was sick.”

What soup was that?
“It was just a really simple vegetable stock with potatoes, a knob of butter and a chopped, boiled egg. The funny thing is, when I was doing research for my latest cookbook Summer Kitchens, I was reading these accounts of Jewish families from the border with Moldova who described this exact same soup! My dad just made it up, but it’s actually a Jewish soup.

“I didn’t actually cook at all until my early 20s. My dad was insisting that I would cook and learn to be as good a cook as my mum. But I didn’t really care then. Later, in my twenties, I moved to Italy and saw how people were cooking these amazing things with simple ingredients. I found that so inspiring. When I came back to the UK I started cooking, but more as a hobby, and after finishing my bachelors degree and masters in arts, I was so obsessed by cooking that I needed to turn it into a profession.”

Ferments

"Fermentation, kvashennia, is an intrinsic aspect of Ukrainian culture."

Olia Hercules

And you ended up in Ottolenghi’s kitchen, so that wasn’t a bad choice! What are your favourite Ukrainian ingredients to work with?
“The sunflower oil in my town is very special. It has this super amber golden colour, and is as strong as sesame oil in its nuttiness. They toast the seed before they press it. Just imagine taking a mouthful of really well-toasted sunflower seeds and chewing on them: that’s the flavour you get from the oil. It’s great on fermented vegetables with some thinly sliced onions.

“I also love syr. The word just means cheese but it’s also the name of a specific type of cheese: a bit like quark. You can use buttermilk or milk that went sour, but in Ukraine most people would use really good, raw cow milk from a local cow. You would put it in a jar and bring it to a boil, to the point where the curd separates from the whey - you strain it and then you’ve got it.

“Another ingredient is salo. It’s a very stereotypical Ukrainian ingredient, but nonetheless – it’s the one that I always bring in my suitcase or get my mum to bring it from Ukraine. It’s a bit like Italian lardo, cured pork fat. It’s delicious to cook with, to cook eggs in for example, but it’s also beautiful on a piece of rye bread.”

Rye! You and I both love rye flour I believe.
“Absolutely! It’s the taste of my childhood, even though wheat is more common in the area where I grew up, where it was too hot to grow rye. We would still get really good rye bread. A friend of mine gave me this amazing recipe for a Russian rye bread called borodinsky, with coriander and caraway seeds, molasses… it’s incredible.”

Sunflower field in Ukraine

I know one of your favourite Ukrainian dishes is borsch, and we’ll get to that later, but what other dishes spring to mind?
“There are so many of them and they often trigger these childhood memories. Varenyky, for example, is one of these quintessential Ukrainian dishes. They’re boiled dumplings and often half-moon shaped but my mum would make them round, much to the surprise of other Ukrainians, who assume there’s some kind of Jewish influence because their own version is round. I love it with the cheese we just talked about, syr. I always tell my mother to salt the filling really well – it needs to have that feta-like saltiness.

“There are also homemade egg noodles, which were my late aunties Czenya’s signature dish. She used to make the dough and then her husband, who was a surgeon, would shape it by hand. He would roll it up into sausage shapes and cut them into perfectly square, thin noodles. Then we would put a duck in a pan with just a bit of water, pepper and salt. That’s it. The duck would then kind of steam/confit/roast in this pan. You take out the duck and pour this delicious broth over the noodles. It’s simplicity itself, with just four ingredients. But it was just… I haven’t had breakfast yet and I’m drooling now!”

Dumplings

Me too! What’s the most essential aspect of Ukrainian cooking?
“All the ingredients, I think, but not in the sense of specific ingredients, more their provenance. Ukrainian dishes do not contain many spices that we can hide behind. I think that’s why my early attempts at cooking Ukrainian food in the UK failed, because we only had a tiny supermarket at my campus. So everything I made, it was just disgusting. I would wonder why it didn’t taste like my mum’s food. The point was that I was so spoilt by everything we had.

“I think you can cook Ukrainian food anywhere, but just make sure you get very seasonal vegetables that people have put some love and time into. The same goes for the meat. If you’re cooking meat, it has to be good. It doesn’t have to be expensive – it can be the cheapest cut. As long as the provenance is there, you can make the cuisine shine.”

Speaking of meat, your book Summer Kitchens has a few offal recipes. Is nose-to-tail eating important in Ukrainian cuisine?
“It is; people use everything. There’s a dish with cow udders in Odessa, which I really would have loved to include a recipe for in my book but I couldn’t find udders anywhere in the UK! It just goes to dog food, which is heartbreaking. But yes, I did manage to sneak a few other offal recipes past my editors. It’s a brave choice really, because many people don’t like offal.

“The interesting thing is that while researching, I found this article on the BBC website where people were asked what they missed from back in the days. Many people actually mentioned offal, and there was one person in particular who said that they used to cook cow udder for tea in the ‘50s! So in the UK people once ate it, but now it’s all gone. It makes me feel really sad. When I was testing pig ears and trotters for my book, I posted a picture on Instagram and they put a filter on it saying ‘sensitive content’! It became this whole thing on Twitter, vegans started trolling me. But you shouldn’t troll me! Go troll someone who posts a McDonald’s burger! I’m the wrong person to be angry at, because I actually respect the whole animal. I eat meat very rarely, but I do eat it, and yes – I think it’s important to actually show people where the meat comes from.

“I’m happy these recipes made it into the book, because they’re very indicative of Ukrainian cuisine.”

Ukrainian desert

Oleshky, Europe's largest desert

What can you tell me about the regional differences in Ukraine?
“Ukraine is Europe’s biggest country, even after Crimea has been annexed. So you’ve got mountains and marshes in the northwest with forests and many hearty meat dishes and earthy ingredients: rye bread, mushrooms, berries, chestnuts and game.

“The south, where I’m from, is only an hour away by plane to Turkey and it gets really hot there. Before the Soviets came, who created this kind of artificial irrigation system, it was pretty much a desert. Europe’s biggest desert is in Ukraine. This area gets massive tomatoes, massive aubergines. It has a Mediterranean diet, with loads of Turkish influences.

“And then there’s the centre of Ukraine. These are words from someone who’s from there, not mine: in the north, you have amazing mushrooms. In the south, therere amazing tomatoes. In the centre, we have good mushrooms but not as good as the ones in the north. We have good tomatoes, but not as good as in the south. But actually, the centre of the country is incredible too. They have really interesting techniques for preserving fruit for example. In a village near Poltava, they traditionally ferment a very specific plum in hay, which is very interesting. They dry whole pears in a wood fired oven, to smoke them at the same time. They then use them in borsch.

“Apart from these big regional contrasts and climatic differences, there are also many variations from one village to another. Unfortunately, some of this got lost during the Soviet Union, but people are trying to remember and document many of these amazing micro-regional dishes and preparations now.”

Oxtail borsch

© Joe Woodhouse

The Dish

That leads us to the dish you chose: borsch. What actually is borsch?
“It is eaten from the formerly Prussian Kaliningrad all the way through the Caucasus and into Iran in the west, south into Central Asia, and right across to Sakhalin and Kamchatka to the east. However, I am not afraid to claim borsch here as Ukrainian. It is the Ukrainian traditional dish – an unblended soup that involves beet and as many as 70 other ingredients.

“It was definitely one of the staple dishes. You’d have it, if not every week, every two weeks for sure. And obviously, if you make it, it’ll be there for a couple of days. So we ate a lot of it. The one that’s really bright in my memory is one with oxtail that my mother used to make and for which I’ve included the recipe. As I remember it, it wasn’t the thick oxtail split into sections you might be familiar with, but rather these really thin whole tails. Maybe they were cow tails? She just had a really big pot and would put them in whole, making them into a stock until they would fall apart naturally.”

You already spoke about the variation with dried, smoked pears. What other variations are worth mentioning?
“In the south of Ukraine you’d use a special type of pink beetroot. My grandmother would use that one and she wouldn’t actually recognise a borsch if it were red. It had to be pink. She wouldn’t approve a red borsch because it would dye all the vegetables red. She thought you had to be able to differentiate between all the different vegetables but she felt that way because that’s how it was made in her area. I can still hear her voice in my head: dont make it with red beetroot! But of course, red borsch is fine, too. People always talk about their version of borsch as the bee’s knees. My grandmother used to say you have to be able to put a big spoon in the borsch and it would have to stand upright. Other versions are more broth-like.

“I came across a very interesting version in this one village in Polisia, where they make borsch using baby eel. I’ve never heard or read about this in any book. Or sun dried gutted goby fish, bashed into flakes that would then be used to make stock for borsch. The variations are endless.

“Borsch is always talked about with a lot of pride. My mum’s brother lives in Moscow and his Russian friends would always ask him: is it true that Ukrainians eat borsch for breakfast, lunch and dinner? And he would say: if you cooked borsch as well as we do, you’d get up at night to eat it!

The Ingredients

Stock
1 kg
oxtail or fatty beef short ribs
1
onion, peeled and left whole
2 l
water
1
bay leaf
200 g
beetroot, peeled and chopped into match sticks
Broth
2 tbsp
sunflower oil
1
onion, finely chopped
1
small carrot, roughly grated
1 tbsp
tomato paste
1
red (bell) pepper
1
beef tomato, roughly grated and skin discarded
200 g
potatoes, peeled and chopped
sea salt flakes
freshly ground black pepper
0.5
small white cabbage, shredded
1 tin
red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
0.5 bunch
dill, chopped
100 ml
sour cream, to serve
Stock
2.2 lbs
oxtail or fatty beef short ribs
1
onion, peeled and left whole
0.5 gal
water
1
bay leaf
200 g
beetroot, peeled and chopped into match sticks
Broth
2 tbsp
sunflower oil
1
onion, finely chopped
1
small carrot, roughly grated
1 tbsp
tomato paste
1
red (bell) pepper
1
beef tomato, roughly grated and skin discarded
7 oz
potatoes, peeled and chopped
sea salt flakes
freshly ground black pepper
0.5
small white cabbage, shredded
1 tin
red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
0.5 bunch
dill, chopped
3.5 fl oz.
sour cream, to serve

The Recipe

Total preparation time: 2.5 hours | Yield: 4 servings | Category: main

The meat that you use should be very well-marbled, otherwise, the meat will never become meltingly soft. The borsch should not be bright red - that’s why we add the beetroot so early on. It should be dark pink.

  1. To make the stock simply place the meat, whole onion, bay leaf and cold water into a large pan. Season the water lightly and cook over a low heat for two hours or until the meat starts coming off the bone. Skim off the scum with a spoon from time to time. 
  2. After an hour, add the beetroot and cook for another hour. The liquid should reduce by 1/3.
  3. Now add potato to the borsch and season it well with salt and pepper.
  4. Heat the sunflower oil in a frying pan. Add the onion and carrot and cook over a medium heat, stirring until the carrot is meltingly soft and is about to start caramelising. This is a distinctively Ukrainian 'sofrito' technique called smazhennia or zazharka.
  5. Add the pepper and the tomato paste to the carrot and cook it out for 2 minutes, then add the grated fresh tomato, stir, reduce slightly and add all of this to the borsch.
  6. Finally, add the shredded cabbage and the kidney beans to the broth and cook for 7 minutes. Serve with a dollop of sour cream, loads of chopped dill and a chunk of good bread.
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