Monday, 22 September 2014

Afghan Turshi: A Pickle Paradise

My first taste memory is pickle. Even as a kid, I was really weird. I liked chillis. I used to climb up the shelves in my grandmother's pantry. The pickle jar was kept right at the top. One time, I dropped the jar and it broke. I was totally busted. ~ Padma Lakshmi

What I love most about cuisines of other cultures is the unexpected pairings of opposing flavours and textures. Hot with sour. Sweet with bitter. Smooth and slippery with tight and crispy.

Nothing embodies these contrasts more than turshi, the pickled vegetables traditional to the cuisines of Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Kurdistan, Albania, Armenia, Macedonia and probably many, many others. Picture a platter of aromatic, cumin-infused rice, the grains floating gently in a spicy lentil curry. Your fingers ripping freshly baked nan into chunks, wrapping it around a spicy pickeled carrot, plunging it like a spoon deep into the curry. Now, just imagine the flavour and texture explosion. Oooh, that's a pickle party.

Making turshi at home can be a nice family activity where everyone gets involved. It will take pretty much the whole afternoon, so boil the kettle and make a pot of green tea for everyone to enjoy.

Any vegetables will do, but if you're serious about creating authentic turshi, you absolutely must have eggplant.

Baby eggplants the staple ingredient in Afghan turshi

 Cauliflower florets (stems on) and carrots are tasty, too.
Turnip gives a nice root-y flavour, perfect for this time of year.

Preparing the vegetables takes the most time in the turshi process, especially the eggplant. For each baby eggplant I used the edge of a steak knife to gently scrape off the leaves under the stem. I then used my kitchen scissors to snip the stem off right at its base.

How to cook a baby eggplant

The vegetables should basically just be blanched, so that they are still crunchy, but not completely raw. I saved time by putting pots of water on to boil while I washed and peeled the other vegetables.

I blanched the vegetables in boiling water, but there is an interesting myth that has floated around Afghanistan for generations surrounding the preparation of turshi. It is said among Afghan women that making of turshi brings ill-health, even death! Traditionally, the vegetables are blanched in boiling vinegar. This is said to cause respiratory problems so severe that death ensues!

I did some research on this and found nothing to prove it. Interestingly, I did find some positive references among Chinese literature that boiling vinegar disinfects and kills germs in the home. What is likely the case is that, with typically little to no ventilation in some Afghan kitchens, the women would be breathing in the fumes of the boiled vinegar. If they were susceptible to respiratory infections, there is no doubt that this could kill them.

Blancing the eggplant
While the eggplant is blanching (it took the longest), I chopped the other vegetables. The beauty is in the size: not too big, not too small. Just a nice chunk that will fit perfectly into your fingers.
A rough guide is to boil 5 minutes for the cauliflower, 10 minutes for the eggplant, and 15 minutes for the turnip and carrot (which I put together in one pot).
A good guide for knowing when the eggplant is ready, is to see its colour change from vibrant purple to a light brown, and to slightly wrinkle. If the eggplant completely collapses with a little pinch between the forefingers, it is overcooked. You could still use it, but the pickling process would really make it too mushy.
Let the vegetables cool while preparing the herbs and spices.

Authentic turshi combines a mix of fresh and dried herbs and spices, that both warm and cool. I used all of the ingredients in the picture above. Quantities are a matter of "feeling", but I used five cloves of garlic, a full bunch of fresh mint, two big handfuls of fresh green chillies, a handful each of red and yellow peppers (they might have been banana peppers, but I am not entirely sure), a few teaspoons of salt, a few teaspoons of crushed dried red chillies and a few heaping teaspoons of dried mint powder.

 Add into the Vitamix and blend into a smooth, spicy paste.

I think now is the time to have a little break with some green tea, mulberries and walnuts because it's been two and a half hours and we're only half way through crafting our turshi. Go on, put the kettle on and join me in a few minutes.

Welcome back! Now we have to do something with that delectably spicy paste up there. We're going to stuff it into the baby eggplants until almost overflowing. Here's how I prepared them:
Make a fine cut down the centre of the baby eggplant and, ever so gently, pry it open.

Spoon the garlic-chilli-mint paste in. Be generous. Then, create a base layer in the pickle jar by arranging the baby eggplants nicely on the bottom.

Create layers with the remaining vegetables.

Spread a few spoons of the garlic-chilli-mint paste on top of each layer.

One of the final stages in the turshi preparation is the addition of the vinegar. I used a combination of organic apple cider (delicious!) and regular old white vinegar. One full bottle of the apple cider vinegar, and two of the white vinegar.

Pour the vinegar in and watch the spices fall beautifully between the layers of vegetables. For a pop of colour, and to add some tang to the taste, gently slide slices of lemon down the sides of the pickle jar.

Now we'll have to let the pickles sit in their juices for about five days. Oh boy, I can't wait to see how they turned out!



  1. Sky , you are very talented . I have to say MaShaa-Allah!

  2. Dried black mullberries with wallnut and green tea, my favourite...3 strong anti-oxidants together full of goodness.

  3. @Anonymous - nothing more lovely than Afghan dried fruits.

  4. Really good recipe and seems authentic

  5. hi sky when it is ready to eat. i mean do we have to leave it airtight for a few days and also how long can this pickle go in days.

  6. How long do u normally leave em in the vinegar and does it make any difference to which vegetables you choose ?