A global quest for the culture of—turnips

When it was her turn to host our regular canasta game, my friend Jan served a wonderful turnip and leek soup, the recipe for which I offer you this week.

There was something about being served turnips, in any form, that struck me as odd.

I love vegetables, but I have never cooked with turnips. I’ve hardly ever eaten a turnip, except when we visited a family in Scotland and were served a plate of “neeps and tatties”–turnips and potatoes mashed together.

It occurred to me that turnip is simply not a Jewish thing. My grandmothers didn’t cook with them. My friends–with notable adventurous exceptions like Jan–don’t serve them. I can’t recall being served turnips by a kosher caterer, even though kosher foodies have become much more adventurous in the past 10 years or so.

I went to my bookshelf, where I have eight specifically Jewish cookbooks, and looked for “turnip” in the indexes. One suggested adding a turnip to the broth when cooking chicken soup. That was it!

The only other mention of turnip in the Jewish books was a recipe for pickled turnip in a book of Syrian Jewish recipes called A Fistful of Lentils. Pickled turnips are ubiquitous in Middle Eastern cooking; you often see a piece of one, usually neon pink due to the beet juice it’s pickled in, used as a garnish in Middle Eastern restaurants. To me that hardly counts as an useful recipe. My daughter, who has some trendy, newer Jewish cookbooks, found all of one recipe, for turnip salad with sour cream – which doesn’t sound at all appealing to me.

So I thought I’d look up more information about these common but strange-to-me veggies.

Turnip? Rutabaga? Swede?

Alas I didn’t get any satisfactory answers as to why turnips are not a Jewish thing. They were known in the ancient Middle East, and they grow well in northern climes, where most of what we think of as “Jewish food” developed. They’re easy to grow and inexpensive, considered a staple, not a gourmet treat.

Wikipedia says there is evidence that the turnip was domesticated before the 15th century BCE, and was grown in India at this time for its oil-bearing seeds. It was well known in Hellenistic and Roman times.

Turnips are often confused with, and can usually be interchanged with, rutabagas, which are larger and have yellower flesh. Trust the British to confuse things. In the south of England, the larger, yellow vegetables are called swedes, possibly because they developed in Scandinavia as a cross between turnip and cabbage. But in Scotland, Ireland and northern England (and parts of Canada), the white root veggies are called swedes and the yellow ones are called turnips.

In Britain and Ireland, where pumpkins were unknown until a few hundred years ago, jack o’lanterns were made from turnips; at Halloween, the large turnips (what we in the U.S. would call rutabagas) would be hollowed out and carved with a face, then carried around with a candle inside. Fans of the wonderful PBS series Call the Midwife saw this on an episode a few weeks ago.

The greens are good too!

In the United States, turnips are harvested in the fall and can be stored over the winter. Turnip greens are harvested and eaten year round, often cooked with a ham hock or piece of fat pork meat; the juice produced in the stewing process is known as pot liquor.

Here are some other uses of turnip in various food cultures:

In Turkey, turnips are used to flavor şalgam, a juice made from purple carrots and spices served ice cold.

In Japan, pickled turnips are sometimes stir fried with salt or soy sauce. Turnip greens are included in the ritual of the Festival of Seven Herbs.

In the Tyrolean Alps of Austria, raw shredded turnip is served in a chilled remoulade as a winter salad.

Turnips are used in variety of dishes in the Punjab and Kashmir regions of India and Pakistan.

In Iran, boiled turnip-roots with salt are a common household remedy for cough and cold.

The turnip may be the only vegetable with its own historic marker. The plaque, on Main Road in Westport, Mass., celebrates the return of farmers Aiden and Elihu Macomber from the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition with seeds from a turnip exhibited there. The seeds did well, and “Macomber Turnips” are still grown in New England.