Swedes, neeps and turnips
Following months of naive denial and self-doubts, I have finally come to accept that what my Mother told me about turnips wasn’t entirely correct.
Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t her fault. Whether a case of geography or possibly a case of self-enlightenment, it appears that here on the West Coast at least, what I had grown up to believe was the “turnip” is actually a rutabaga and the true turnip is a lovely white and purple vegetable.
The case of the turnip which is not a turnip gets even more confusing when you further learn that the rutabaga is also called a swede or a neep, depending upon where you are from. This root vegetable definitely has an identity problem.
The turnip, and by this I do mean the white and purple one, is thousands of years old. It once grew wild all over what is now Europe and Asia. Although we normally include it with the root vegetables, it is actually the thickened bulb-like growth at the base of the stem of a plant belonging to the same family as the cabbage and kohlrabi. Over centuries, it was tamed and crossed with other plants, producing turnip varieties of many colours, and eventually, perhaps as late as the 18th century, it was crossed with possibly a cabbage to produce the rutabaga, a larger and thicker skinned bulb with deep yellow flesh and a more pungent flavour.
The word “rutabaga” comes from the Swedish words for “round root.” The rutabaga was developed because it grows well in the harsher and colder growing climates, and actually benefits from being left in the ground until well after a frost. The cold takes away some of its rather disagreeable (for some people) strong flavour. It became a very popular winter vegetable in Sweden and because of this, became known as a swede in other European countries. It was also sometimes called a Yellow turnip, and from this the Scottish dubbed it a neep.
The neep, which many Scottish recipes call a turnip while actually meaning the swede, has become a part of their Robert Burns’ day celebrations. Bashed neeps are traditionally served with the haggis.
In most of North America, it appears as though the nomenclature is now fixed. The Yellow turnip, or swede, will be called a rutabaga, saving the name “turnip” for the other, true turnip. Although we usually only find the white and purple variety here in Canada, there are many other colours and shapes. There is even a yellow turnip, which should not be confused with the rutabaga, or Yellow turnip.
Rutabagas are an acquired taste. They tend to be strong and peppery, and are best served along side strong flavoured meats, which is why they are a natural for haggis and whisky. The more delicately flavoured white turnip would be no match for the strong flavour of a haggis.
For those like me who grew up with the flavour, I love to eat it raw. Mom used to cut up pieces of it for us to nibble on while she was getting the Sunday roast done. Mashed potatoes on Sunday most often included mashed “turnip.” Mashed rutabagas can seem an unappetizing mush to some, but nothing lots of butter can’t fix.
Both vegetables are at their best when roasted or glazed or added to soups or stews. The French use turnips (which they call navet,) extensively in their regional cooking. There was a period when they were considered only peasant food, but now that peasant foods are once again popular, so is the turnip. The greens from young turnip can also be eaten when available.
The fact that the rutabaga grows best in cooler climates makes it one of the few vegetables that Canada grows for export. To keep them fresher longer, the rutabaga is normally found in grocery stores with a heavy wax coating. This wax and the thick skin of the vegetable must be removed before cooking. The more delicate skin of the younger white turnip can be left on and merely scrubbed.
Well, I just phoned my Mom, and as far as she is concerned, there is only one kind of turnip, and that is the large yellow one I remember from growing up in Ontario and they are definitely called turnips in Ontario. She says that she has heard of the white turnips, but they don’t turn up in her grocery stores. Her theory for why they don’t call the vegetable a rutabaga is that “turnip” is easier to say. Arrgh!