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By Malcolm Jolley

The turnip is in fact a brassica, or cabbage. Brassica rapa, to be exact and related more to the radish than its neighbours on the grocery shelf, which tend to be true "root vegetables". Whether the turnip is itself a root vegetable seems to be the stuff of some controversy. The Oxford Companion to Food's Alan Davidson dismisses the root designation by explaining that the root is "not a real root, but the swollen base of the stem." But Harold McGee disagrees, stating that the turnip parts we eat consist of not just the swollen stem but also the tap root. Where stem ends and tap root begins is unclear to this layman, and more or less irrelevant. It’s the taste that counts!

Turnips have been alternatively prized and dismissed as common food (or even prized common food) since at least Roman times. They are thought to originate in Scandinavia or Northern Russia, and had spread throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia thousands of years ago. Middle Eastern cuisines still use them, mostly pickled. Those pink crunchy sticks added to a shwarma or falafel are pickled turnips dyed pink with a beet (itself a swollen lower stem cousin). The first turnips in North America were planted by Jacques Cartier in 1540, and the Virginian colonists reported growing them as far back as 1609. Since it thrives in temperate climates and keeps well over freezing continental winters, the turnip was prized among homesteaders and pioneers (it contains a good dose of vitamin C).

As a cabbage cousin, the turnip contains sulphurous compounds that are released if it’s cooked too long. Boiling or roasted until just soft, however, and the turnip adds an earthy tang to other starches like potatoes or yams. They work particularly well in the mash crust of a shepherd’s pie. The leaves, like those of the beet, may also be eaten: raw when young, cooked when older.

Turnip photo:Leslie Vineberg


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