05 February 2011

The Mystery of the Russian Turnip... ‘Lass, why will ye no cook my neeps?’

Turnips (Brassica rapa)

Image via Wikipedia


The Expat Cook says...

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Russian wives are usually a compliant lot about what’s cookable in the Slavic kitchen.  True, Larissa doesn’t like smelly kidneys, and changes the subject when I talk about haggis.  But I wonder, why she refuses to cook turnips!

Madam, I’m sorry, I believe you have mistaken my rutabaga for your turnip!

The rutabaga.  In Scotland neeps = Swedes= rutabaga.  Required by law in the USA to be called rutabaga. Purple/yellow rough skin with yellow/orange flesh when cooked. Grows to 15 cm (6 inch) diameter.  Botanists view them as  a probable accidental hybrid from the early 1600s of the turnip and cabbage. Waxed for winter storage.  Sweet mild taste, loaded with nutrition.  Can winter over, no matter how severe the frosts.  Smooth leaves like those of the cabbage.

The Turnip.  White inside and out. Size ping-pong to tennis ball.    Good for stews.   Seed to harvest in a fast 5 to 8 weeks.  Must be harvested in the fall. Rough leaves with sparse hairs.

My quiet memories, and Larissa’s Soviet field work...

I assumed that a turnip had to have the same name everywhere.  What my mother taught me to cut safely and prepare for stew was actually a parafin-waxed rutabaga... .  All these years I have lived in ignorance!

While I was chopping rutabaga in New Jersey, Larissa was helping a collective farm get in the harvest in the Leningrad area... day trips from the research institute for hard but satisfying work!  If they had been harvesting rutabagas, there would have been no rush, as they can easily stay in the ground throughout the winter.  She correctly remembers that they were turnips, white round veggies that grew to a large size, only meant for pig fodder, which they still call with scorn... турнепс, turnips!

The Russian word for turnip is repa!

So Russians think a turnip is unacceptable food for people.   All these years Larissa has cooked what Russians call repa, which is (don’t tell!) a kitchen acceptable turnip.  The inside turns orange when cooked and its pungent taste is just right with melted butter.

Russians say brokva when they want rutabaga.

The other turnip-like vegetable Russians will cook is the brokva.  Only now, after days of talking with Russians and checking the Internet,  am I aware that brokva are rutabagas...the Holy Grail of what Scots use at their gatherings.  Eureka!

Mystery solved!

If I want some mashed Scottish turnips and potatoes, the ingredients, more or less, have always been at the market or cooling on the balcony.  I just need to ask for pronounced in English brokva e cartofelnoya puree... that is to say, bashed neeps and tatties!


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Articles and References

Are ‘Neeps’ Swedes or Turnips? Guardian.co.uk, Word of Mouth Blog, Oliver Thring

Turnip and its hybrid offspring http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/archives/parsons/publications/vegetabletravelers/turnip.html





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  1. An interesting post. I was not aware the humble Scottish neep was the same as the US rutabaga. I thought the rutabaga was closer to a radish or something like that. You live and learn!

    Well, now I know how to ask for neeps in another country! :D

  2. Thanks Anonymous,

    Happy that the fame of the Scottish neeps, lowly rutabagas, is spreading!


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