Any walk down the streets of Türkiye reveals an array of street vendors selling a wide variety of culinary delights, from simit and roasted chestnuts to iced almonds and midye dolma (stuffed mussels). Among such an abundance, pickle sellers are notable; their product standing out like a flamboyant, vintage museum, meticulously arranged in jars and vivid colors. Presenting artifacts of a love story with tradition, there are various historic pickle shops whose windows are arranged in a riot of colors—orange, green, fuschia, yellow—that fascinate passers-by. And indeed, there is a fascinating world behind those windows.
When the weather starts to cool down, Anatolians start to get a sweet rush for pickling. Fruits and vegetables are washed, jars pile up, ovens heat up, large pots settle on the stoves. People start preparing for the coming days and ensure that vegetables and fruits are stored for a long time without rotting, jarring whatever is in season. But that condiment holds a significant cultural element, from the family recipes passed down through generations to preserving the art of pickling.
Pickles in Turkish History and Traditions
The versatility and cultural importance of pickles goes beyond their modern-day usage. In Ottoman times, pickles held great significance, with a dedicated pickle warehouse in the palace kitchen and vegetables and fruits being cultivated exclusively in palace gardens. Pickles were served at grand banquets, symbolizing hospitality and honoring guests. It is also known that the sultans did not sit at the table without them. Intriguingly, they were also a vital part of helva meetings, social, informal gatherings where people would come together to enjoy helva, engage in conversations, and discuss various topics. At the end of these gatherings, various pickles were served to aid digestion.
The Ottoman era witnessed the production of a wide range of pickles, including forgotten varieties like grapes and pears, according to Priscilla Mary Işın, a historian of Ottoman food. “Pickles are still eaten as an accompaniment to main dishes, such as pilaf and kebabs, offering a balancing acidity to fatty meals,” she says. Particularly, cabbage pickles were consumed alongside helva during gatherings, acting as a harmonizing component. Sultan Selim III even wrote a humorous poem praising cabbage pickles at helva meetings:
With the arrival of winter the cabbage doth emerge
Unafraid of cold, a noble vegetable; the cabbage.
In shape and size like the mace of King Keykavus,
Its leaves, like giant rose petals, nourish us.
Unlike okra threaded on a thousand threads, the cabbage
May be compared to a lion riding in a carriage.
With joy and pleasure it is a perfect marriage
No helva party is complete without a cabbage.
İlhamî sings it's worth and many praises
My dear cabbage, dear cabbage, dear cabbage.
The reason why pickles are consumed excessively in Turkish society is not only its taste but also its healing powers. The cookbook “Ottoman Cuisine,” prepared in the 15th century by Muhammed bin Mahmud Şirvani (known as the “greatest Ottoman physician”), provides interesting information about pickle recipes and the health benefits of pickles. With a physician's point of view, Şirvani refers to the therapeutic properties of all the recipes presented in the book. One of the recipes is pickled mint, with suggestions that it strengthens the stomach, stops hiccups, facilitates digestion, relieves toothaches, increases appetite and removes odors from the body.
But there’s also another way of thinking about pickles—not just as a condiment, but as a drink. “Pickle shop customers not only buy pickles, but also stop to drink a glass of delicious pickle juice,” says Işın. One of the main reasons for consuming this food is the benefits it provides to the body. Pickle juice is a general booster for strength and immunity due to its probiotic nature. It's believed to offer overall health benefits, providing a holistic health boost, supporting not just one specific benefit but potentially contributing to overall well-being and immunity. Viewed in this way, pickle juice, or turşu suyu, is famed as a quick, tasty beverage and a natural remedy. In the past, when people got sick, they used to run to small shops or peddlers in the neighborhood and drink pickle juice to aid in digestion, provide hydration, and alleviate muscle cramps. It’s also known as a great hangover cure.
Begüm Yaramancı, an expert on Turkish pickling heritage, author, and a master pickler affectionately known as “The Pickle Queen,” explains how much of a vast place pickles hold in Turkish cuisine. “Pickles have a great place in our daily eating and drinking routine,” she says. “It’s a flavor that is never missing from summer and winter kitchens.” Some classic Turkish dishes, such as kuru fasülye (stewed beans) or döner, are unthinkable without pickles, not to mention long rakı tables in which pickles serve as the absolute mezze, an appetizer on the table to start the feast. “Pickle juice or şalgam, turnip juice, which is a kind of pickle juice, is also a beverage that we consume all the time,” says Yaramancı.
Preserving the Art of Pickling in Türkiye
The tradition of pickling remains vibrant today, and Yaramancı is at the forefront of this movement. With a passion for pickles that began in her childhood, she pursued a career in fermentation, studying culinary arts at Chicago Kendall College, and authoring multiple books on the subject. Yaramancı discovered the transformative power of fermentation and the harmonious interaction between living organisms and food. Driven by her childhood curiosity for flavors and the healing and socio-cultural effects of pickles, she embarked on a mission to share the art of pickle-making in its simplest and most authentic form.
Pickle making techniques vary according to geographic location. Türkiye, being part of a culturally diverse and geographically rich area, offers a wide range of pickled vegetables like cucumbers, peppers, cabbage, carrots, eggplant, and cauliflower. Unique to this region is the practice of adding vine sprouts or leaves and a dash of grape vinegar to pickles. “Grapes originate from Anatolia and the Middle East, and play a historical role in pickling as they contain tannins that help maintain vegetable firmness during fermentation, especially in hot climates,” notes Yaramancı. Among the various pickling techniques worldwide, Turks favor the brine method, which produces the delicious by-product known as pickle juice. Along with spices, garlic is also an essential ingredient for Turkish pickles, as it adds flavor and antimicrobial properties.
Turkish pickles exhibit captivating regional diversity, too, showcasing distinct traditions and flavors. Different parts of the country embrace their own pickling practices, utilizing locally available ingredients. In the Black Sea region, anchovies and green walnuts are featured prominently in pickles, while figs and quince are popular choices in the Aegean region. Eastern Türkiye tends to favor spicier pickles, incorporating generous amounts of garlic and hot peppers. These regional variations add to the allure and richness of Turkish pickling traditions.
Despite the rich historical and cultural significance of pickling in Türkiye, there is a lack of awareness regarding its importance as a culinary heritage. The younger generations, accustomed to modern conveniences like refrigeration and frozen foods, may view traditional preservation methods like pickling as unnecessary. Nevertheless, Turkish picklers are actively striving to preserve and promote this art. Local communities, organizations, and individuals are taking initiatives to safeguard traditional pickling techniques, utilize locally sourced ingredients, and support local pickle makers. Food movements like “Slow Food” advocate for the use of traditional and local ingredients, including those used in pickling, and raise awareness about the value of preserving culinary heritage.
Amidst the fading recognition of pickle-making in Türkiye, the Queen of Pickles emerged to revive the ancient technique. Her goal is to bring back the pure and healthy essence of this traditional method, which has been used for hundreds of years in this geography, urging its global rediscovery through a fusion of ideas. However, such culturally significant and tasty food often goes unrecognized globally.
The versatility of pickling various locally-sourced vegetables, the medicinal value of Turkish pickle juice, and the vibrant atmosphere of pickle shops filled with an array of captivating colors, aromas, and sounds remain enigmatic to many. The shop itself is a visual feast, with rows upon rows of colorful jars brimming with pickled vegetables, creating a kaleidoscope of hues that entice the senses.
These shops are also one of the best examples of the artisan culture in Türkiye that continues today reflecting quintessentially Turkish values of belonging, sharing, and neighborhood culture. The owners of the shops generally started their business years ago as a mobile, and over the years they have not only established loyal customer relations, but also become well-versed in the pickle business. They are not just shopkeepers; they are passionate ambassadors of the pickle culture. They possess an extensive knowledge of pickling techniques, ingredients, and the rich history behind this ancient tradition. Their enthusiasm is contagious as they engage in lively conversations with customers, sharing stories, tips, and even family recipes that have been passed down for generations.
In some pickle shops, you may even have the opportunity to witness the pickle-making process firsthand. Behind the counter, large ceramic jars or barrels may be filled with fresh vegetables, carefully selected and prepared. The owners skillfully mix a combination of spices, salt, and water to create the perfect brine, which is then poured over the vegetables, initiating the fermentation process. Observing this age-old technique adds an extra layer of authenticity and appreciation for the craftsmanship involved. The air is filled with the tangy and aromatic scent of pickles, creating an inviting environment. Customers can sample different pickles, experiencing the unique flavors and textures of each variety. The owners take pride in showcasing the versatility of Turkish pickling, offering an assortment of vegetables, from crunchy cucumbers and vibrant peppers to tender cabbage and earthy eggplants.
Compared to other pickle options from around the world, such as kimchi or sauerkraut, Turkish pickles remain relatively unknown. “It should not be forgotten that Türkiye has been on the Silk and Spice Roads throughout history, and its cuisine has had its share of this richness in terms of ingredients and spices,” says Yaramancı. “Based on this philosophy, I am trying to put our pickle culture in a different spot in terms of its techniques, ingredients, and accompaniment to food. I have made this a mission both at home and abroad.”
Let’s get to the main question though: Do Turks use vinegar or lemon in their pickling? Given the generally warm climate in the region, grape vinegar is commonly used for preserving pickles to prevent softening caused by temperature. However, some people associate pickles with vinegar, while others prefer the aroma of lemon. Vinegar offers a sharper, more acidic taste compared to pickles made with salt or lemon. Ultimately, the choice between vinegar and lemon in pickling is subjective, and Turks have differing opinions on the matter. Often asked this question, Yaramancı responds to this with a famous Turkish proverb: “a sharp vinegar harms the jar.” Regardless of the choice, Türkiye is a pickle paradise, all bound up in jar after jar.
My Recipe for Mixed Vegetable Pickles
My grandmother was an exceptional cook, and I learned this mixed vegetable pickle from her. This recipe, like many others, is a piece of our shared history, a testament to the joy of preparing and savoring delicious food, and a way to ensure that the treasures of our culinary heritage are never lost. It’s more than just a recipe; it’s a connection to the past, a celebration of my grandmother’s enduring spirit, and a gift to future generations who will continue to savor the flavors of tradition.
The recipe features a tangy and crunchy medley of cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, bell peppers, lemon, garlic, dill, and more. Those vegetables are packed into canning jars and submerged in a salty brine that creates the proper conditions for a lactic acid fermentation to occur. The brine also has a small amount of vinegar in it, which helps to lightly acidify the brine from the start, building a more complex flavor while further encouraging the right kind of bacteria to thrive. Over time, as naturally occurring lactobacillus bacteria eat the sugars in the vegetables, lactic acid is produced as a byproduct, further souring the pickle.
It's important that the vegetables remain submerged in the brine during the pickling process, as the fermentation is anaerobic, meaning it needs to take place away from the presence of oxygen. Also note that the recipe calls for more vegetables than will fit in the two jars. This is partly because it's not easy to buy a portion of a head of cabbage or cauliflower, but also because it's very important to pack the jars tightly. It's much better to err on the side of having extra pickling ingredients than having too little. Any remaining vegetables can be tossed with olive and salt and roasted, or used any other way desired.
In two clean 1-quart (1L) glass canning jars, tightly pack cabbage until jars are about 1/3 full; press down as much as possible to minimize air space.
Layer on top lemon slices, minced garlic, dill sprigs, carrots, cauliflower, and bell peppers until each jar is about 2/3 full; press down firmly to pack ingredients into jars and remove air space. If using, add a large pinch of red pepper flakes and 2 fresh grape leaves to each jar. Top with additional cabbage, packing to compress, until jars are full. Note: You will have leftovers of each vegetable, which can be reserved for another use (such as roasted in the oven).
In a large vessel or mixing bowl, stir together water, vinegar, and salt until salt is fully dissolved. Slowly pour the brine into each jar until vegetables are completely submerged. Use a paring knife to remove any large air bubbles by gently sliding it into the jars.
Seal the jars tightly and set on plates to catch any potential overflow. Store the jars at room temperature, away from direct sunlight, until brine ferments and becomes pleasantly sour and refreshingly tangy, about 1 to 2 weeks; throughout the fermentation process, you should notice bubbles forming and the brine becoming cloudy. Discard the pickles if any off aromas or flavors develop or if the pickles become slimy. Surface molds can sometimes grow during fermentation and are typically harmless, though they should be scraped off; that said, it's better to discard the pickle if in doubt about its safety.
Store pickles in the refrigerator until ready to eat; flavors will continue to meld and improve over time as the pickle sits.
Two 1-quart (1L) glass canning jars
You can experiment with different vegetable combinations based on the season and your preferences. Enjoy the pickles, and don't forget to savor the brine, as is customary in Turkish cuisine.