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Earthy powers

The beet family – beetroot, chard and sugar beet – are celebrated as health foods today. But these tasty, vibrant plants have been enjoyed for centuries, and for good reason: they make gorgeous soups, salads and pickles, and add richness and colour to so many other dishes. Text and photographs by Berrin Torolsan

The oldest recipes ever found were unearthed in Mesopotamia, inscribed in cuneiform on three clay tablets. Now treasured items in Yale University’s Babylonian Collection, they date back four millennia, to around 1750BC, predating King Ashurbanipal of Assyria, who features so prominently in this issue, by more than a thousand years. The 40 recipes, marvellous documents of ancient haute cuisine, demonstrate just how sophisticated our ancestors in Mesopotamia were, and how far their dietary habits have filtered down to us through the ages. There are dishes prepared with fowl, game and mutton, leeks, onions, legumes and spices. Among them is a lamb stew cooked with beet.

Beet, Beta vulgaris, is a versatile plant that comes in various forms: chard is grown for its succulent spinach-like leaves and stalks; beetroot is cultivated mainly for its (usually purple) taproot and has recently acquired the status of a superfood thanks to its newly rediscovered medicinal properties; and sugar beet is grown commercially for the sugar extracted from its sucrose-rich roots.

These cultivated forms, which have fed us for so long, all descend from the sea beet, Beta maritima, a bitter-tasting wild plant that thrived on the shores of the Mediterranean. With the warming of the climate in prehistoric times, it spread into Anatolia and the Caucasus, as well as southward to the Fertile Crescent, readily pollinated by the wind.

Although the ancients seem to have eaten only the leaves, cultivated forms of beet must have been part of the culinary repertoire since early times. In the fourth century BC Aristotle wrote of red chard, and Theophrastus mentions light-green and dark-green leaves. Romans enjoyed the crisp, succulent leaves of chard, or beta, as they knew it. De re coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking), the book often attributed to the eccentric first-century Roman gourmet Apicius, contains a recipe for a salad of chard (beet greens) simply dressed with vinegar, olive oil and mustard.

The Arabs probably introduced it to the Iberian peninsula, since the Spanish acelga and Portuguese selga both derive from al-silq, the Arabic for chard. The Book of Dishes (Kitâb al Tabîkh), compiled in 1239 by Kâtip al Baghdadî (the Scribe of Baghdad), is a collection of recipes from the sumptuous courts of Baghdad. As well as sophisticated chard dishes, the book includes the simple but appetising relish silq bi-laban – chard leaves and stalks mixed with garlicky yoghurt and sprinkled with nigella seeds and fresh mint leaves.

Two centuries later, Şirvani, the Anatolian scholar and court physician to the Ottoman sultan Murad II, translated al Baghdadî’s recipes into Turkish, with a commentary on their medicinal benefits. He also made a few additions, for instance recommending the chard relish as “a digestive and appetising condiment fit for warriors” but discreetly adding beetroot. Next to the relish’s original Arabic name he noted, “in other words, chard and beetroot with yoghurt” (“yani yoğurtla pazı ve çugundur”).

So beetroot was already on the culinary scene in 15th-century Turkey with its early Turkish name of çugundur. Variations are still found today in Iran, Azerbaijan, and among Tatars and Türkmen. Bulgarians call it cukundor and Serbs cukundruk. In some Turkic dialects, beetroot is known simply as kızılca, or red.

Perhaps because of an unfortunate double entendre, the word çugundur is rarely used in modern Turkish, the term pancar, from the Arabic banjar, being preferred. The French-born linguist Meninski, who accompanied the Polish ambassador to Istanbul in 1653 and stayed for eight years, includes both çukundur and pancar in his Thesaurus linguarum orientalium. But already by the 19th century, Mehmet Kâmil and Turabi Efendi, two Ottoman gourmets, refer to beetroot as pancar in their cookery books (in 1844 and 1861, respectively).

In Germany beetroot as a vegetable was first recorded in 1558 as “Roman beet”, suggesting that it was introduced from the Latin world. Selection and cross-breeding soon meant that cultivars with tastier and bigger roots were in demand.

Beetroot grows all the year round, like cabbage, and is a staple the world over, alongside other root vegetables. It is central to the cuisines of Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and, above all, Russia. In her classic 1990 Russian cookbook Please to the Table, Anya von Bremzen says the word “borscht” comes from the old Slavonic brsh, meaning beetroot, of course. Methods and ingredients may vary, but the point of borscht as most of us know it is always beetroot, which gives the soup its vibrant colour.

Beetroot owes its classic hues of ruby and purple to a pigment known as betacyanin or betalain, which is believed to combat cancer. Rich in antioxidants and fibre, vitamins and minerals (the leaves have even more iron than spinach), it has been shown to improve athletic performance and increase lung power. It may have gained popularity in recent years among the nutritionally minded, but beetroot’s beneficial properties are nothing new – they were well known to physicians of the past and to folk medicine. The leaves were used to dress wounds, and the root was commonly prescribed to cleanse the blood and ease chest congestion. Although it is always available, it is in autumn that stands in Istanbul street markets turn into works of art with their still-life displays of purple beetroot, bright green chard and all sorts of salad leaves.

The best time to consume beetroot raw (grated or juiced) is from June to October, when it is richest in vitamins. In winter, beetroot brings its jewel-like colour to the Turkish table, often pickled, as a side dish or relish, refreshing our taste buds with its sweet-and-sour flavour, which in medieval times was enjoyed by sultans and subjects alike.

The third of the three beets, but by no means the least important, is sugar beet, whose whitish parsnip-like roots are full of sugar. In 1747 the German chemist Andreas Marggraf, subsidised by the King of Prussia, extracted sugar from beet and found under the microscope that the sugar crystals were identical to those of cane sugar. His discovery attracted little interest at the time, but his associate Karl Achard persisted with his experiments and eventually, in 1801, set up a modest sugar refinery in Silesia, then part of Prussia, now in Poland.

Most of Europe’s sugar came from sugar cane grown in the British Caribbean. But Napoleon endorsed the cultivation of sugar beet around 1813, during the Napoleonic Wars, when there was an embargo on British goods and a cheap refined sugar extracted from beet rapidly replaced cane sugar in Europe. By the 1880s sugar beet accounted for half the world’s sugar production.

In Turkey it played an important role at the dawn of the Republic. Attempts in the Ottoman Empire to build sugar refineries were fruitless, and European sugar enjoyed a virtual monopoly. Until, that is, Molla Nuri, a Turkish farmer from a family of helva-makers in Uşak in western Anatolia, started to experiment at home, making syrup from beet, chopped and boiled, using the ancient method of extracting juices from grapes and other fruit to make pekmez (molasses). In 1923 he went into business refining sugar from his own crop, planted three years earlier on his estate. Today Molla Nuri – who would quite justifiably take the surname “Şeker” (Sugar) – is the pride of Uşak. Like Napoleon before him, Atatürk encouraged farmers to grow sugar beet and promoted the building of sugar refineries, the first of which was in the Thracian town of Alpullu. In a part of the world where the wild forms of beet already flourished, the yield is bountiful.

With30 sugar factories across the country, Turkey was self-sufficient in sugar until the global sugar business came on the scene. Only a handful of refineries now survive, but the pekmez tradition lives on. In late autumn women in the countryside are still busy on village greens cooking up huge copper cauldrons of sugar-beet molasses, which is famous for protecting against winter chills. “We give this to our children rather than cough syrup,” they say.

Kırklareli, not far from Alpullu, is renowned for its beet pekmez. The roots are peeled, shredded and cooked for several hours. Sackfuls of softened beets are then pressed in archaic timber presses to extract the sweet juices, which are boiled and stirred on open wood fires for another four to five hours, thickening to a golden syrup with the consistency of honey. The leftover pulp serves as precious fodder. Most older towns in Turkey, such as Merzifon and Kastamonu in central Anatolia, and Samsun and Sinop on the Black Sea, are known for their pekmez, made from grapes, apples, carob beans, mulberries, but above all sugar beet.

Among the Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets there is a recipe for lamb stew called Tuh’i, prepared with beet, leek, onion and garlic. Apart from its complicated seasoning, the dish bears a striking resemblance to Pazı Kapama, the simple stew given below. Amazing how little the pattern of food has changed over the millennia.

The recipes with this article:

Pazi Kapama / Lamb Stew with Chard

Pancar Turşusu / Pickled Beetroot

Aydin Pancar Turşusu / Aydın Beetroot Pickle

Pazi Sarması / Stuffed Chard Leaves

Soğuk Pancar Çorbası / Cold Beetroot Soup

Pazı Cacığı / Chard with Garlic Yoghurt

Pazı Kavurma / Eggs with Chard or Beetroot Leaves

Kök Çırpması / Beetroot and Apricots

To read the full article, purchase Issue 58

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