What exactly are neeps? (Are they the same as turnips?)

It's a staple vegetable in Scottish cuisine. But would you recognize it if you saw it?

By Mike Lewis

Neeps and turnips, Fresh leeks

Turnip (left) and neeps
Photo of neeps by Magnus Manske

You can't venture far in Scotland without coming across neeps. This distinctive root vegetable crops up in several Scottish recipes, and is also eaten as an accompaniment to other dishes. But what exactly is it?

Put simply, neep is short for turnip. But be careful. In most of the English-speaking world, a turnip is a small root vegetable with a white flesh. It's usually spherical (more or less), with a thin skin. The outside is generally white, but it often has purple patches at the top (as in the picture).

In Scotland, on the other hand, a turnip or neep is a somewhat different vegetable. It's still a root, but the outside is purplish-green, and the inside is usually pale yellow or orange. It's quite a bit larger than the white variety, and its skin is thicker. In England, Wales, Australia and New Zealand, it's called a swede. That's presumably because it originated in Sweden, where it's called rotabagga. That in turn gave rise to its American name: rutabaga.

In fact, some Scots use the terms neep and turnip interchangeably for both vegetables. I've also heard swede / rutabaga referred to as yellow turnip and Swedish turnip, whereas the other kind is sometimes called white turnip.

Botanical names

If you're interested in the botanical names, they are Brassica rapa for the white version and Brassica napobrassica for the yellow variety - which, by the way, is officially classified as a cross between a turnip and a cabbage.

Cooking neeps

When it comes to cooking, both items can be treated in much the same way. They both make a useful addition to soups and stews. And both can be boiled and mashed, preferably in the company of potatoes or other root vegetables. But in traditional Scottish dishes such as clapshot, skirlie-mirlie and bashed neeps, it's the yellow variety that's the authentic ingredient.

July 2011

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