While the pickles Julius Caesar and Napoleon thought had an invigorating effect on the morale of their troops have lost their mystique on western tables today, in Turkey these winter treats remain a staple of the national cuisine.

Pickling is one of the world's oldest and most important methods of preserving food. Although some sources cite the third and fourth millennia B.C. for the origin of pickles - a claim which appears impossible to verify - nothing is known for certain about exactly when and where they were first produced. It is definite however that this method of long-term food preservation with the help of salt and vinegar dates back far earlier than the tradition of preserving food with sugar. Having succeeded in preserving their foodstuffs for extended periods by salting them, human beings in time learned to let vegetables, fish and meat stand in salted liquids, thereby ensuring that they were also flavorful and high in quality as well as colorful and appetizing in appearance.

Pickles have been made all over the world by different methods and in different varieties for centuries.  But Asia is their acknowledged point of origin insofar as the world's homeland of rich food sources stretches from Asia to the Mediterranean, as evidenced by the fact that the world's first civilizations developed in these regions.

As the most commonly pickled vegetable in the world today, the cucumber is of Indian origin. Brought first to Mesopotamia, it spread in time to all parts of the world. The basic source of nutrition of the early seafaring explorers, too, was pickles, which were kept in barrels in the holds of their ships. Amerigo Vespucci, for whom America is said to be named, and who looked after the affairs of the famous Medici family in Spain, was at the same time a merchant who supplied pickles to ships in that country. Pickles have left deep marks on different periods of world history. Caesar and Napoleon, for example, both believed that pickles had an invigorating effect on the morale of their troops. Once highly valued by prominent western military commanders, this mystical foodstuff has a much more limited use today on western tables. In Turkey on the other hand pickled foods still preserve their importance.

Especially in winter it is possible to see pickle vendors in outdoor markets all over the country. The windows of pickle shops display a colorful and mouth-watering array of these tasty treats.  Anyone passing by such a shop will get a hankering for a glass of pickle juice at the very least. Pickle panoramas such as this can be found nowhere else in the world, be it East or West. On the Turkish table pickles command equal respect with salads, and in Ottoman cookbooks pickle recipes appeared together with salad recipes under the heading 'Salads and Pickles', an indication that the two were on a par. Pickle juice is even offered as a beverage with meals. As the crowning glory especially of the cuisine of Adana in Turkey's Southeast, 'şalgam türşüsü' (pickled purple carrots) and their juice are sold in all markets and restaurants today. Pickles also have a place in recipes for hot dishes in Anatolian peasant cooking, and hot dishes made from pickles continue to be a traditional part of Black Sea cuisine.

Pickle recipes and a wealth of fascinating information on the health benefits of pickles are given in the book, 'Fifteenth Century Ottoman Cuisine', compiled by Muhammed Bin Mahmud Şirvani, translated by Prof. Dr. Mustafa Argunşah and Dr. Müjgan Çakır and published by Gökkubbe Publications. As the book points out, Şirvani was a medical doctor, and since the recipes were compiled from a physician's point of view, reference is made to the therapeutic effects of each of the dishes included.

One of the recipes in the chapter on pickles is for pickled mint, which I have come across in no other source. Şirvani points out that pickled mint fortifies the stomach, cures hiccups and toothache, facilitates the digestion when taken after or between meals, stimulates the appetite and eliminates malodorous impurities from the body.

Şirvani's recipe for pickled mint is as follows: Wash some large leaves of fresh mint and spread in them in a shady place to dry. Sprinkle a few celery leaves and a few cloves of garlic and some beneficial, aromatic herbs over them and mix. Then place in a glass jar, add sharp vinegar to cover, and color with a pinch of saffron. Wait until the sharp, sour taste of the vinegar has permeated the mint leaves; then consume with gusto.

The famous pickle seller in Izmir's Kemeraltı market makes pickles of every conceivable variety, so that occasionally when pregnant women get a craving for some food that is not in season they can at least find a pickled version of it at this shop.

One of Turkey's leading pickle producers is in the Ankara town of Çubuk, whose natives are rightfully proud of their product. Turkey's only pickle festival is also held here. The people of Çubuk produce and sell traditional pickles to standards of quality and in large quantity. The key factor in pickle production is obtaining the ingredients from their natural habitat by the tried-and-true methods. Not every cucumber or pepper you buy lends itself to the making of pickles. If you think about it, for example, we no longer find those big cucumber pickles any more. The ones we do find are mushy and tasteless and overly salty. The water used in pickling also affects the success of the product. If the juice of unripe grapes is used, for example, the resulting pickles will be irresistible.  The taste of the tiny 'acur' (Armenian cucumber) pickles produced at home by the people of Mardin using unripe grape juice is simply indescribable. These pickles are not sold in shops, but you might be able to taste one if you are lucky and happen to have a friend or relative in Mardin.

Pickled beets

2 kg red beets
2 bulbs of garlic
2 tbsp salt
2 cups vinegar
2 cups water

Clean the beets and place in a pot. Add the salt, one bulb of garlic, the vinegar and water and place on the burner. Cook about 25 minutes until the beets are done and let cool. When cool, remove the beet skins. Place the pickled beets in a glass jar; filter the cooking juices through a piece of gauze or cheesecloth and pour over the beets in the jar. Peel the remaining garlic, finely chop and sprinkle inside the jar. Let sit two days, then serve.

Bosnian pickled peppers

2 kg bell peppers
3 tbsp salt
2 kg 'süzme' yoghurt (thick, strained yoghurt)
1 kg cream
2 tbsp parsley
1/4 tsp ground red pepper

Wash the peppers, remove the seeds and drain. Salt the insides of the peppers, arrange on a baking sheet and let stand overnight. Drain the peppers. Mix the yoghurt and cream together and fill the peppers with the mixture using a spoon. Arrange the filled peppers in a glass jar. When finished, pour the remaining yoghurt-cream mixture over the top. Let stand 4 or 5 days until the pickles are ready. Cut the peppers in half down the middle when serving. Drizzle with olive oil flavored with ground red pepper.

Cabbage 'mihlama'

1 kg pickled cabbage
2 medium onions, finely chopped
3 tbsp butter
4 eggs
1/8 tsp ground red pepper

Finely chop the pickled cabbage. Sauté the chopped onion in a skillet until it begins to color. Add the cabbage and sauté together for another 2-3 minutes. Remove to a flat pyrex dish or frying pan. Break the eggs over the top and sprinkle with the red pepper. Place in a pre-heated oven for 2-3 minutes until the eggs are done. Serve piping hot.

Pickled green beans (From the Black Sea town of Giresun)

1 onion
2 medium carrots
1 kg green beans
2 tbsp rice
1 tbsp salt
1/8 tsp ground white pepper
1/3 cup olive oil
2 cups water

Peel and finely chop the onion and sauté slightly in the olive oil. Clean and finely chop the carrots and beans. When the onion begins to color, add the chopped beans and carrots and sauté together for 3-4 minutes. Add the salt and pepper and mix well. Do not oversalt. Add the water and bring to a boil. Then add the rice and simmer for 25-30 minutes. Serve cold.