For many people in the English-speaking world, the word ‘turnip’ conjures up a boiled bag of sadness that smells strongly of school. This is a waste of a good – yes, good – vegetable.
The turnip, when not cooked ad nauseum, is crisp, savory, and a good source of Vitamin C. Because of these qualities, it is beloved in many cuisines. The turnip has had a long time to worm its way into people’s hearts as it was one of the earliest vegetables under cultivation.
The first people to look at the slightly thick lower stem of the wild turnip and see potential lived in Northern Europe about 4000 years ago. By the time Roman authors such as Columella were playing “Is it a Turnip or a Swede?” (more on that later), the Turnip Appreciation Society had members stretching from the Middle East to Japan. Its firm texture made it ideal for pickles, while its propensity to caramelize at high temperatures ensured it became a favorite for roasting and frying.
It is a bit of a mystery to me as to why the turnip has fallen out of favor in countries like Britain and Australia. It was possibly a victim of the particularly dreary period of post-war cooking, which left many Britons with life-long aversions to locally grown vegetables. There was also a health scare in the 70s suggesting that turnips could cause goiter. It turns out that excessive consumption only exacerbates goiter in people with pre-existing iodine deficiency; but forty years later there are still twice as many search results on Google for the phrase “turnips goiter” than “turnips recipe”.
Regardless of the cause, the turnip (along with the Swede, silverbeet, and devilishly messy beetroot) have now been relegated to a small corner of the produce department frequented only by very old white ladies and me.
In terms of preparation, the turnip is the same as any other root vegetable. Peel it, and go from there. The most difficult thing about cooking with a turnip is working out just what you’re meant to be buying. Our old friend Columella described two types of turnips – napus and rapa. From those two words, and the later addition of ‘Swede’, has sprung an absolute tangle of words to describe two modern varieties.
For the purpose of this article we are going to use turnip to refer to the white thing with a pink bit up the top.
Its yellow cousin – which goes by the name rutabaga, neap, Swede, or sometimes confusingly ‘turnip’ – will be left for another day. (Although if you are really desperate for something to do to a neap in your possession, you could do a lot worse than Clapshot).
Once you’ve mastered the difference, and braved the Old White Lady section of the produce isle, what do you do with your hard-won turnip?
- Yuzu Pickled Turnip – A traditional Japanese side dish; with the added bonus of requiring bottled Yuzu juice which you will have to procure from your nearest Asian grocer (as if you needed an excuse to visit and poke around).
- Canard aux Navets – In English, ‘Duck with Turnip’. Thankfully the finished product looks more like whatever you imagined when you saw the name in French.
- Lebanese Pickled Turnips – Very different to their Japanese counterpart. An intriguing dish that taught me to taste bay leaves in a finished product, and which I frequently eat from the jar while standing with the fridge door open.
Turnip season is late winter to spring. If it’s winter where you are, then go forth and reclaim your vegetable heritage. After 4000 years, the turnip belongs to just about everyone.