The whole of the Turnip can be eaten including the leaves, but it is the small, tender varieties that are grown for human consumption. The larger varieties are often used as feed for livestock and the roots provide a valuable energy source for young animals.
Turnips prefer cold-weather climates and the most common variety is white-skinned with a purple, red, or green blush on the top where the sun has hit. They are a biennial plant, taking two years from germination to reproduction. The Turnip spends the first year growing and storing nutrients and the second year it flowers, producing seeds. The flowers of the Turnip are tall and yellow, with the seeds forming in pea-like pods.
Smaller Turnips tend to be sweeter and can be eaten raw, adding a nice crunch to salads, while larger Turnips have a nuttier taste and are best when blanched or boiled. To avoid a bitter flavour, place a potato in the water directly next to the Turnip.
The most common type of Turnip is mostly white-skinned apart from the upper 1–6cm, which protrude above the ground. The interior flesh is entirely white. The root is roughly conical, but can be occasionally global, about 5–20cm in diameter and lacks side roots. The taproot (the normal root below the swollen storage root) is thin and is normally 10cm or more in length. This part is normally trimmed off before marketing. The leaves grow directly from the above-ground shoulder of the root and are sometimes eaten as “Turnip Tops”. Turnip leaves and root have a pungent flavour similar to raw cabbage or radishes that becomes mild after cooking.
Turnip Roots weigh up to about one kilogram, although they can be harvested when smaller. Most very small Turnips (also called Baby Turnips) are specialty varieties. These are only available when freshly harvested and do not keep well. Most Baby Turnips can be eaten whole, including their leaves and come in yellow, orange and red as well as white-fleshed. Their flavour is mild, so they can be eaten raw in salads like radishes and other vegetables. The Turnip Root is high in Vitamin C and the leaves are high in Vitamin A, C, K and calcium.
There is evidence that the Turnip was domesticated before the 15th century BC when it was grown in India for its oil-bearing seeds. Wild forms of the Hot Turnip are found over west Asia and Europe.
In Scotland, Ireland, Northern England and parts of Canada, the usage is confusingly reversed, with the yellow vegetables being called Turnips or neeps, and the white ones swedes. Neeps are mashed and eaten with haggis, traditionally on Burns Night. Turnip Lanterns are also an old tradition in these areas. In Turkey, Turnips are used to flavour salgam, a juice made from purple carrots and spices served ice cold and in other Middle Eastern countries such as Lebanon, Turnips are pickled. In Japan Pickled Turnips are sometimes stir-fried with salt/soy sauce and Turnip Greens are included in the ritual of the Festival of Seven Herbs, called suzuna. In the Tyrolean Alps of Austria, raw shredded Turnip Root is served in a chilled remoulade in the absence of other fresh greens as a winter salad.