Updated: Jul 10, 2020
How I fell in love with pickles in the Balkans and beyond.
An assortment of homemade turshi in Puka, Albania.
The first time I realized what was possible in the world of the pickle was when I found myself, at 22, living in Shushi, Artsakh. Artsakh is the disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Today the region is ethnically Armenian but there are still the ghosts of old mosques, out of use, crumbling, and vine ridden.
It was October of 2013 and as the fog lifted over the valley, I was sitting down to lunch with the Armenian family I lived with, in a house with high ornate doors and a grandmother who stoked the fire daily.
There is a lot I remember about this time. There was the perpetually guestless hotel lobby where I spent evenings drinking beers and eating pretzels with local soldiers and friends from Argentina. There was the outdoor shower of the family’s home, that I skipped to through the rain. There was the museum where I worked, trying to edit English translations of artifact descriptions. There were the hidden cobblestone streets I ran down, the laundry strung high between apartments that danced in the wind, and the squeals of neighborhood pigs that woke me each morning.
But it was the daily pickles that captured my attention. The pickles were kept in a large plastic trash can that was stored on an enclosed balcony off the kitchen. Inside the trashcan floated a mass of pickles, all colors, shapes and sizes, but there were no cucumbers in sight. The pickles, better known as tourshi, were made up of red and yellow peppers, cauliflower, cabbage, and carrots.
Every day for lunch, before winking and pouring a shot of cognac, the grandmother would scoop tourshi from the barrel with a slotted spoon and place it on a floral plate in the center of the table. Some days we ate fried eggs and bread. Others it was fried noodles cooked like the beginnings of pilaf minus the rice. But always, the tourshi glimmered in the center of the table. This is how I learned that a bite of pickled cauliflower is the perfect complement to greasy egg yolk.
Many things felt unsure for me at this time. I was a recent college grad with no idea where my life was headed, in a country where I was struggling to learn the language. But each afternoon when I sat down for lunch, no matter what we were eating, I knew I could count on the consistency of pickle vegetables.
Years later when I lived in Albania I found myself falling in love with tourshi all over again. Only this time it was spelled turshi and made primarily with green tomatoes and white cabbage.
In Albania turshi serves the same purpose, a sour vinegary accompaniment to a greasy meal. Around the country turshi is ever present, on tables full of salty white cheese, beef qofte, and fried potatoes.
In the north of Albania the regional dish pulë me çervish is roast chicken with polenta or grits (depending on whose translating). And without fail at the center of the table will be a plate full of sliced green pickled tomatoes. The turshi, ready to bite into, to cut the richness of the butter laden çervish.
Turshi is not essential only to the diets of Albanians and Armenians but is present in cuisines all over the Balkans, Caucasuses, and Middle East. The spelling may change, and the vegetables used, but the general principles remain. In Iran, where many speculate turshi originated, the word turşu is derived from Persian torsh, which means 'sour.
Today, as I look out my window at the largest garden I’ve had in years, I can’t wait for the pickling I have in store coming late summer. As more and more people are tending to their victory gardens I urge you to celebrate the pickle. There is a reason people all over the world make them every summer. Pickles are the perfect way to keep fresh veggies all year round. They are also the perfect gift to neighbors and friends. Consider swapping out a yearly jam making with pickling instead. There is so much room for innovation. Turshi can be made with eggplant, peppers, beets, cauliflower among a host of other vegetables and herbs to flavor. In the end, there is nothing quite like opening a jar of pickled vegetables in the dead of winter, digging in, and remembering summer.