During my time in Istanbul I came across a surprisingly long list of things with an identical Hungarian counterpart. One of these was pickle culture. In both Hungary and Turkey pickled veggies are considered a necessary side to greasy, saucy meats as they help with digestion and break down excess fat. In Hungary pickles are believed to activate the vitamin C contained in the ever-present paprika powder, the same paprika powder vitamin C a Hungarian named Szent-Györgyi got a Nobel Prize for first extracting. And in Turkey too pickles are important. They replace all fresh salads in traditional meals during the winter months.
During our stroll through Kadıköy Market my Turkish friend and I stopped at a pickle store and I was shocked at how similar it looked to any pickle vendor in any market in Budapest. Plastic bins filled with a huge variety of veggies soaking away in their salty brine. A gloved man (turşucu) scooping turşu into a bag, adding some juice and weighing the grams. There are gorgeous jars out front to pull the customer in, along with homemade şalgam suyu, my favorite Turkish beverage. There’s also beets, a million different peppers, tomatoes, green tomatoes, cucumbers, kelek (Turkish cucumbers), carrots, garlic bulbs, gherkins, eggplants, cabbage wedges and cabbage strings, plums, unripe peaches, green beans, whole corn on the cob, cauliflower and celery. There are also cherry peppers stuffed with sauerkraut and eggplants stuffed with shredded beets or carrots. There’s karisik turşu, a mix of everything, or you can make your own blend and add spicy or not-so-spicy brine. The possibilities are endless and that’s pretty awesome.
I got a big plastic bag full of one or two of everything and I ate it in the taxicab on my way to the airport. The brine was of apple cider vinegar and rock salt, tart and pungent enough to make my lips pucker. There was a wonderfully wide array of textures in that bag. Crunchy florets of cauliflower, chewy green beans, peppers that snapped under each bite. Some things, like the gherkins and carrots, were on the sweeter side. Others were hot as hell and brought tears to my eyes. The cabbage wedges were perhaps my favorite of all, as they absorbed the brine completely yet maintained a firm crunch that shook my senses and woke me up in time to fly. The beets were nice too, slippery smooth with a mineral flavor that turned sweet around the edges.
In a Hungarian market you find the same thing and the way the pickles are sold is remarkably similar. Metal or plastic bins, plastic bags or boxes. It’s called savanyúság and it’s best when it comes from Vecsés. There’s the same variety of peppers, baby corn, cucumbers, zucchini, beets, carrots, green tomato, tiny melons, plums and unripe peaches. There is cabbage in many different forms, most popularly shredded and sold from a separate barrel on the side. Cabbage is also stuffed into peppers and into gherkins. There’s a spicy and a sweet version of a thing called csalamádé, which is a mix of shredded cabbage pickled in vinegar and sugar with varying quantities of peppers, carrots and onions added in. And there’s also a particular style of gherkin called kovászos uborka, which is made without vinegar during the summertime. Cucumbers are placed in a glass jar with dill, garlic, water and salt. A slice of bread is sunk in at the top and bottom of the solution, and the container is left to sit in the sun for days so the yeast in the bread can ferment the juice into brine, the cucumber into a gherkin.
There are also salads made from lighter pickled veggies, among which my favorite is tejfölös uborkasaláta, a garlicky and wonderful dish of thinly sliced cucumber with a bit of vinegar, sugar, and sour cream (clearly adapted from Turkish yoghurt) to add richness.
As a gal who drinks pickle brine with more joy than fruit juice, I love these little places and I appreciate that they exist.