Since a big part of this blog is about exploring lesser known foods and cuisines, all the buzz around Olia Hercules’ first cookbook of Ukrainian recipes piqued my interest. So with absolutely no knowledge of food from this part of the world, I took the plunge.
The introductory passage to Mamushka notes that misconceptions about Ukraine’s climate, and by extension its cuisine, are commonplace in the UK. Far from being wintry and Siberian, Olia is quick to point out her homeland’s proximity to Turkey and the Caucasus and the influence of this part of the world is made clear in the recipes provided. My expectations of the book were heavy, heart-warming dishes featuring beetroot, cabbage, dill and pickled vegetables and while these ingredients did feature heavily (a whole chapter is devoted to fermentation and pickling), they were married with more Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavours too. The first dish I cooked (and appropriately, first recipe in the book) was borshch, a beef and beetroot broth made lighter and summery by the addition of tomato and red pepper and seemed to capture the “North-meets-South” fusion that permeates the book.
Freshness was a theme that also seemed to carry throughout Mamushka, not simply in terms of the ingredients, but the flavours too. Fresh herbs, in particular dill, parsley and coriander, are omnipresent but more rich and autumnal or winter dishes are accented with sour pickles that keep the palate interested. Equally, for those still fearing a monotony of beetroot and cabbage, there are Eastern Mediterranean ingredients in the dishes from Olia Hercules’ family in Georgia and Azerbaijan, like a fenugreek and coriander seed spiced bean salad, halloumi and herb stuffed flatbreads or a mutton and dried lime stew. And if you needed more reminding that Ukraine does get warm, there are lots of recipes specifically for barbecue cooking (I’d have liked to see an alternative indoor cooking method for some of these dishes though!).
Testing out recipes, I’ve found the most enjoyable recipes, both to eat and in terms of their appeal in flicking through the book, have been the salads. Having tried plenty as they’re cheap to make and don’t take much time or effort to put together compared to other dishes, I’ve been really impressed by their variety and simplicity. Radishes and tomatoes dressed with just dill and lots of yoghurt was a big hit and is definitely something I’ll be making time and time again. I also loved the quick-pickled rhubarb. Cold-pressed sunflower oil, in so many of the salad dressings, has also been a bit of a revelation as it’s subtle nuttiness really complemented the rest of the food but without over-powering like other nut or seed oils can do: I’m definitely a convert.
While I haven’t had a chance to play with the fermented foods and preserve recipes yet, I’ve found the rest of the book well-written and reliable enough in its results to trust them. A mixture of the traditional and more outlandish Soviet creations like “capricious ladies” (that’s noodles coated in meringue) that seem worth trying for the novelty alone, desserts and sweet snacks are certainly not an afterthought as is often the case in many books. The Ukrainian biscotti were rightly described as moreish. I barely got to eat any of them!
Olia Hercules’ Mamushka does a fantastic job of showcasing a cuisine that has been misunderstood, or perhaps entirely overlooked, for a long time. While Ukraine has sadly been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent years, this books shows the country in a very different and positive light. There were places where I felt recipes would have benefited from a little extra details here and there to make them a little smoother to follow, but as a first cookbook that’s definitely forgiveable. With the excellent photography and the vibrancy of the food to entice you in, I’ve found Mamushka difficult to put down.