The term “fermentation” (first observed by Pasteur as la vie sans air: life without air) carries a lot of baggage with it—historical, cultural, psychological. It’s responsible for some of my favourite things in the world: yogurt, miso, coffee, sauerkraut, stinky tofu, and leavened bread to name just a handful. The process of tiny living bacterias and yeasts eating up carbohydrates and spitting out alcohols and CO2 might sound off-putting, but the next time you associate fermentation with “rotting” edibles, just remember how blissful a slice of good cheese tastes.
It’s a method of food preservation dating back to the Neolithic age and has been getting humans drunk since circa 7000 BCE. Pickling is a type of anaerobic fermentation, and the resulting sour taste is thanks to more than just vinegar (which is also a product of fermentation!) present in the brine—lactic acid bacteria come into play. Unlike basic canning, pickling encourages the activity of beneficial microorganisms that end up defining the distinct flavours of each batch. It can all get very nerdy very quickly, so I’ll leave it at that before I get too hyped up.
On another note, wonderful novelist Tom Robbins once made the astute observation that Sunday afternoons are carved out of boiled turnips. It’s universally acknowledged that Sunday late afternoons are subject to a very particular and peculiar lack of robustness… for me, they conjure up memories of wading through the post-church slump with leftover homework assignments backed with a sleepy murmur of tumbling laundry machines and golf tournaments on TV.
Turnips, for one reason or another, seem to be cut out of that same drab material. In colloquial terms, they’re the ultimate derps of the root veg kingdom; they’re crayon nubs in the art supplies world. Feeling a bit sad for this last bowl of end-of-season turnips and about to leave the kitchen for two weeks’ holiday, I figured some sprucing up was in order…and when dealing with inconvenient quantities of vegetables, fermentation and pickling save the day. Pickles throughout the Middle East are known variably by region as kabees, mkhallal, torshi. In go some colourless matchsticks of an arguably unremarkable root, and out come these tangy magenta slivers ready to provide some counterbalance in a rich meat shawarma or add punch to a falafel platter.
Not so derpy after all. Stay tuned to see these little guys in use, peeping out amongst all sorts of contextual goodness.
Lebanese Pickled Turnips (Kabees El Lift)
(yields approx. twice the amount pictured)
- 5 small turnips
- 1 small beet
- 4 cloves garlic, sliced
- 2 bay leaves
- 250ml (1 cup) distilled white vinegar
- 750ml (3 cups) water
- 3 T sea salt
Clean and sterilise a couple glass jars in boiled water. Peel and slice the turnips and beet into matchsticks.
In a large bowl, combine water, vinegar, and salt.
Add garlic to the jars, then layer beets and turnips until full. The beets are mostly there for dyeing the pickles a lovely pink hue, so as long as there are a couple of slices in each jar, it will suffice.
Fill the jars to their brim with the vinegar solution and shake gently before storing in a dark spot in the kitchen for about 10 days to ferment before storing in the refrigerator.