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6 October 2021

Whether you like yours mild, bitter or bright pink, it’s time to revive the turnip

This humble vegetable has struggled to shake off its association with miserable school dinners; but with rich spices it can be transformed.

By Felicity Cloake

Now that we’ve come to our collective senses and realised that kale is a leaf not a lifestyle, and supermarkets have largely stopped trying to flog us plastic-wrapped cauliflower “steaks” for more than a whole head of the stuff, I’d like to formally launch my campaign for the revival of a far more deserving vegetable: the forever- unfashionable turnip.

Despite the best efforts of Michelle Obama – who, in 2014, went viral dancing to Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What” with a “turn-ip” (get it?) to encourage healthy eating – and Nintendo’s wildly successful Animal Crossing series, which uses them as a trading commodity, turnips in this country have struggled to shake off their association with Blackadder’s dung-gathering sidekick Baldrick and his famous Turnip Surprise (the surprise being “there’s nothing else in it”).

Turnips are rarely far from the word “humble”. The website LoveFood (which one would think might be more open-minded) once ran the headline, “Are turnips the most miserable of all winter veg?” Even the omnivorous Nigel Slater was slow to succumb to the turnip’s charms, once describing the “watery pulp” he endured at school as “a plate of hate”.

A cookery book won as a domestic science prize by my grandmother somewhat before Nigel’s time suggests boiling the poor things for 45 minutes, so perhaps it’s not surprising that turnips were the original scary Halloween jack o’lanterns long before pumpkins arrived on these shores. In fact, they have classical pedigree, being, the scholar Alan Davidson writes, “an important food for the Romans”. He tells the story of the third-century war hero Curius Dentatus, who was approached by a hostile army while roasting turnips over the fire and offered vast amounts of gold to defect. A simple man, he chose to stay with his turnips instead.

Native to northern Europe, the turnip spread east through central Asia – where it’s a popular addition, the Red Sands author Caroline Eden tells me, to meaty stews – and eventually made it to Japan, where they developed a variety so mild and juicy that it’s more like a radish. Indeed, I’m reliably informed that if you can’t find Tokyo turnips, daikon makes a better substitute than the more strongly flavoured Western versions. That said, all turnips contain a compound called cyanoglucoside, which some people are genetically predisposed to find unpalatably bitter (if this is you, comfort yourself with the thought you’d also find cyanide harder to swallow).

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Diminutive spring turnips are still delicate enough to eat whole, but at this time of year they’re likely to be “coarse [and] cow-sized”, as the wonderful Jane Grigson put it in her Vegetable Book of 1978. Perfect for carving, in fact – and, having done just this last year to distract myself from the news of a second national lockdown, I’d recommend a stout serrated grapefruit spoon for the job. Mash the scooped-out innards with spice and peas, Punjabi style, or whizz them up into a creamy purée or soup. The bittersweet flesh works particularly well with rich ingredients such as dairy or cured meats, and strong flavours including mustard and chilli (Yotam Ottolenghi has a recipe for spicy turnips on his website that will knock your socks off). The French often pair turnips with duck, while in the Middle East they pickle them, dye them shocking pink and eat them with almost everything.

In the interests of national unity, I must also mention the larger, orange-fleshed swede. Known as a neep north of the border, and a plain old turnip in other parts, it is actually a 17th-century cross between a turnip and a cabbage that only arrived in the UK via Sweden in 1781, but quickly elbowed its way into both the Burns supper and the sacred Cornish pasty. Slightly sweeter, but similarly good mashed with large quantities of butter and pepper, it also makes a decent Halloween lantern, even if it lacks the long and noble history of the original. Still, at least it’s not a cauliflower, eh?

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[See also: Britain is surrounded by fish – so why do we eat so little of it?]

This article appears in the 06 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Unsafe Places