Olia Hercules on Heritage, Nostalgia & Food

In her most personal book yet, Home Food, award-winning and critically acclaimed food writer and chef Olia Hercules distils a lifetime of kitchen curiosity into her most-loved recipes.

She draws on her childhood in Eastern Europe; her years in Cyprus and Italy; and her simple, plant-centric family meals at home in London... as well as festive recipes she has gleaned along the way.

Read on to hear Olia's her inspiration for the cookbook, her favourite ingredients, and insights into cuisines she loves.   

Browse Olia's Top Ingredient Picks in her curated collection for Sous Chef. Or cook her recipes for tomato rice and Cypriot salad.

Photography © Joe Woodhouse


Home Food by Olia Hercules

What makes a great comfort dish for you?

When you're taken care of as a kid, you feel that love and attention - then that's what you crave. When you're older, you just want to return to that time.

For me, It is just the food that my mom would make when I was little.

When you're taken care of as a kid, you feel that love and attention - then that's what you crave. When you're older, you just want to return to that time.

For me, it's a very specific combination of mashed potatoes, the way that my mom used to make them.

They were made with loads of milk and butter, almost like a really rich pomme puree... but then you serve it with a fermented cucumber.

It's the contrast between the cucmber's saltiness, and the soft cloud of the mash that brings back memories.

The cookbook feels like such a beautiful amalgamation of recipes, how did you decide what you were going to include?

Initially it was supposed to be a completely different book!

I was supposed to travel to central Asia and repeat my grandmother's journey in the 1950s between Siberia and Tashkent. 

And then when the pandemic hit, it was obvious that I couldn't travel. And I had just given birth to my second son.

I thought, okay, I'll write about food that I cook at home.

Tomato Rice

What cooking tips have you taken from each country you lived in?

Ukraine

Layer your flavours in broths.

We have a special kind of sofrito in Ukraine where you sweat onions with some grated carrot to add a layer of natural sweetness. 

Whether that is sweet and savoury or spicy and salty. We have a special kind of sofrito in Ukraine where you sweat onions with some grated carrot to add a layer of natural sweetness. Then if there is a sour element like tomato it makes everything sing.

My mum makes this broth, which is actually in the book. She grates the carrots on the fine side of the grater. It gives the broth a really beautiful golden hue. We call it the sunshine broth! That's definitely a technique that's used a lot all over Ukraine.

Italy 

Don't be scared to keep things simple!

You can make something incredibly delicious using just oil, garlic, some chili and spaghetti.

My friend, Tommaso used to make a dish where he just boiled the pasta and then he bought really amazing cherry tomatoes. He would cut them in half, or even tear them with fresh mozzarella in a bowl and then cover all of that with hot pasta straight out of the pot. The residual heat would cook the tomatoes and the mozzarella a little bit. 

It's just these little things. Don't be scared to just do simple things, especially if you're in the rush.

Cyprus

put the feta into a freezer until it's a little bit frozen... then grate it just like snow over your salad 

Grate feta into your Greek salads for a dramatic 'pile of snow' on top!

Now I also sometimes put the feta into a freezer until it's a little bit frozen... then grate it just like snow over your salad and it's amazing. It becomes part of the dressing. 

Cook Olia's Cypriot salad recipe

Cypriot Salad

What ingredients are always stocked in your pantry?

  1. Maldon Saltmy favourite sea salt brand and used in almost all my cooking.
  2. Tamari Soy Saucefor making the Xinjiang Sauce which is in the Rose Dumplings recipe.
  3. Chinese Black Vinegar -  again we use this for making the Xinjiang Sauce which we are just obsessed with.
  4. Caraway seeds, fennel seeds, coriander seeds and cumin seeds- these are the spices that I always have in my cupboard
  5. Kimchi or Sauerkraut - a must-have in my cupboard at all times.
  6. Buckwheat flour - my favourite cake of all time is made with buckwheat flour, and the recipe can be found in the book.

See more of Olia's Top Picks in her curated collection for Sous Chef.


This cookbook has unique stories behind the recipes. Where does your interest in storytelling comes from?

I come from a family of amazing storytellers. I don't know if it's a personal thing or if it is more broadly Ukrainian.

When we were growing up, the extended family would get together around a big table and we would eat, drink and tell stories.

It was almost like a therapeutic act

Inevitably parents and grandparents would be telling stories from the past. Sometimes they'd be really funny and people would be laughing and sometimes they would go into the dark places of our history and they'd be crying.

It was almost like a therapeutic act, you know, like there's no tradition of psychotherapy in Ukraine, but we have this tradition of storytelling.

And that's why it was always kind of an, an intrinsic part, part of my whole character actually.

Now thinking back, I'm like, oh, there's no wonder that I have become a storyteller myself.

What recipes would you recommend we try first from the book?

Potatoes of My Childhood

For years, I thought is it even the recipe?

It's just something that people in Ukraine and Eastern Europe make so often. But actually when I asked my mom, you realize that it is definitely a recipe and it's also such a comforting process.

It's a really easy three ingredient dish, but it's just, it's just amazing. I think everybody should try it.

My Brother's Salad

My brother made this for us in Ukraine last summer when we came to visit my parents and he taught me how to make it.

You need really good meaty bull-heart tomatoes, some aubergines and feta. Then once the aubergine is cooked you drizzle over a little bit of sesame oil, and loads of herbs.

The more crazy the combination of herbs, the better the salad!

Rose Dumplings with Sweet Potato, Onion and Barberries

If you want more of a project, this is a great recipe where the dumplings are shaped like a rose.

It's served with a central Asian sauce called Muhabbat’s Xinjiang Sauce. It's got all of these amazing ingredients that you very simply put together. And then if you drizzle it over the dumplings, it's just beyond.

That's more of a dish if you want to impress or, you know, have a special meal.

Is there anything that you would like to share with people about Ukraine?

I've been running a campaign called #cookforukraine, where people make a Ukraine recipe and put the hashtag and photo on social media. That really helps with awareness.

On our just giving page 'Cook For Ukraine' we've actually collected more than 1.5 million pounds since the war started, which is an amazing thing.

Or if people want to support smaller charities, my home region, is in huge need of humanitarian aid. So I'm helping volunteers on the ground which you can find in my highlights on my Instagram, under 'Kherson'.


Feeling Inspired check out Olia's Top Picks or see her recipes for tomato rice and Cypriot salad.



0 comments

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

Latest Articles & Recipes

  • How To Clean Pestle And Mortar

    How To Clean Pestle And Mortar

  • How To Use Pestle And Mortar

    How To Use Pestle And Mortar

  • How To Make Perfect Poached Eggs In A Saucepan

    How To Make Perfect Poached Eggs In A Saucepan