Turnip Time

Turnip Time

Aylin Öney Tan - aylinoneytan@yahoo.com
Turnip Time As American as apple pie, Halloween is generally perceived as a truly American invention, and often blamed as an invasion of American culture spreading rapidly across the world. 

In reality, it is a transformed old world tradition with deep roots in Pagan culture. However, when we look at the iconic Halloween tastes of the old world, there is a confusing trans-ocean exchange of old and new, some classics of the old world Halloween tables are based on hitherto New World novelties, such as potatoes. At every Irish Halloween (or Samhain), a generous plate of colcannon, a butter-laden, mashed potato with kale or cabbage, is present as the ultimate soul-comfort food. 

Halloween has its roots in the Celtic celebration of the harvest season, marking the transition of seasons, straddling between the end of summer and the start of winter. It also stands for the fragile boundary between life and death, symbolizing the renewal of life cycles. Winter months are often associated with death; nature freezes to a dormant state only until the awakening of spring. In the Celtic calendar, the end of the October was also the end of the year, and on the last night of the year, the transition between the world of the dead and the living would become blurred. It was believed that the dead would return to the earth to visit the living, telling them about their future and fortune. In the darkness of the night, they’d need some guidance to find their homes, so families would light fires and hang lanterns on door gates and place candles in windowsills to lead the souls of the deceased back home. 

The pumpkin lantern practice has its roots in that tradition, but of course there were no pumpkins in the old, old world, as pumpkins are North American vegetables, unlike other Cucurbita varieties. Actually, that is also why the pumpkin is a Thanksgiving favorite, as it is a truly all-American crop. Back in Ireland and Scotland, in the pre-pumpkin era, the lanterns would be of turnips. In the Country Museum in Ireland, there is one freaky, scary turnip lantern that looks more like a creepy mummy face rather than a friendly lantern attracting home-sick souls. 

Turnips have been around in Anatolia since Ancient Greek and Roman times, but it was seldom used as a vegetable at Turkish tables, but they do appear quite frequently in a different way: in liquid form in the glass. “Şalgam suyu,” translated literally as turnip juice, is actually not the juice of the turnip but a fermented drink, pretty much like pickle juice. It is made basically of purple carrots, known also as black carrots, and just a little turnip, fermented with bulgur and cracked wheat. It is rather salty and sharp, but deliciously refreshing especially with ever-present kebabs. It is also customary to drink the anise-scented national spirit rakı accompanied with a glass of tangy şalgam juice. Though rakı is not a sweet drink, it bears a natural connotation of sweetness because of its anise aroma, and the tang and kick of briny turnip-carrot drink creates an ideal contrast and balance. The same applies to its pairing with meaty and fatty kebabs, cutting through the sizzling lamb fat like a sharp razor.  

Thinking about Halloween’s iconic tastes crisscrossing continents like flying on a witch’s broomstick and about how the American potato became the Irish Samhain favorite, or North America pumpkins replaced European turnips, one could easily create a Turkish version of All Hallow’s day, adopting turnips and potatoes in a totally different way. The pumpkin? Reserve it for the dessert, as you find a baked pumpkin slice topped with walnuts in any Turkish eatery at this time of the year. 

Bite of the Week

Recipe of the Week:
If you’re keen on celebrating Halloween in Turkey, make it old school and celebrate with turnips and potatoes like the Irish do. I suggest a Turkish version of colcannon, made with olive oil instead of butter, with wilted rocket leaves instead of kale or cabbage and eaten cold as part of a meze table. Believe me, it will be worth trying. Boil about four to six potatoes until they become tender. I suggest washing the potatoes before boiling – you may need some of the cooking liquid when mashing them; it will add an extra depth. Meanwhile, wash and chop in fine strips a bunch of rocket leaves (Turkish rocket leaves are rather big) and finely chop the green parts of about six spring onions. Peel the boiled potatoes while still warm and mash with a fork, adding about three quarters of a cup of extra virgin olive oil and a few tablespoons of the cooking liquid as needed. Salt to taste. You should also add the chopped greens at this stage, as they will slightly wilt with the heat of the potatoes. You may also add a good squeeze of lemon juice if you prefer. To serve, spread the potato mash in a plate like you would to colcannon, and make a well in the center and pour in some green tinted early harvest olive oil. So heavenly!

Fork of the Week:
My favorite pickle shop, Özcan turşular in the Kadıköy market, stocks some interesting bites to make your fiery drink even more killer. The soft-curdled, cheese-filled tiny pepper pickles come in both green and red varieties, the red one supposedly even hotter. They also stock the best of the best, “Şalgam Suyu!”

Cork of the Week: Şalgam suyu, the odd fermented carrot/turnip drink, goes really well with spirits other than its usual companion, rakı. Serve chilled with shots of tequila or chili-infused vodka. As salty cocktails are becoming popular instead of sugary concoctions, why not try a bloody turnip juice cocktail. The color is freaky bloody, the taste hellishly hot, and it is as potent as a witch’s poison, making it ideal for a Halloween party. Pour one part peppery vodka and two parts of şalgam suyu over a few ice cubes, serve with a stick of celery and carrot, and dark purple carrot if you can find it. You could also sprinkle some freshly crushed black peppercorns for an extra kick. A few of these and your flight on the broomstick is guaranteed.