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What is the difference between Swede, Neeps and Turnip

In Scotland, anyone over a certain age, will know them as fairly interchangeable, with simply a different colour to set them apart.  A comment on an earlier recipe post about cooking this versatile and really tasty vegetable, made me decide to do a post about the fundamental differences and why we Scots tend to refer to turnip as swede, or neep, or is it turnip?

It still begs to argue the reason for the different names.  Seriously, it could make a grown woman cry.  It’s not terribly straight forward, and an English/Irish/French/Scottish debate could grow in parliament to get a very uneasy stalemate as each side battled the other to come out on top.  This pair of root veg could cause utter chaos on a dinner menu.

Everyone knows who Rabbie Burns is, and that we die hards North of the border tuck into haggis, neeps and tatties.  So, are those neeps turnip or swede, or a mix of both?    The basics really came from days gone by, when vegetables were more locally sourced.  Scottish grannies knew about turnips versus swedes, but turnips were usually reserved for the more well heeled families that could afford to import them when weather was poor.  Prices were higher.  As a child growing up, the greengrocers always had bins and bins of huge swedes on sale, but never a turnip in sight.  Turnip, when cooked, has a more white fleshy appearance, where swede, when cooked, is a more yellow/orange colour.   Cooking with turnip used to be seen as a sign of wealth, due to the small size and difficulty sourcing in winter months.  Knowing all this though, really doesn’t help much to determine what neeps are either.

In Aberdeen, we often still use the name neep to describe swede.  We also call swede turnip.  Who knows what most people call the white turnip?  I grew up thinking it was a posh veg with no taste.  Maybe they grew more white turnip down south, where the weather is warmer, and crop growing needed to be faster for higher population densities, but I’m seriously guessing.

Growing up, my grannie cooked ‘turnip,’ or ‘neep,’ every week, but it was always actually, very orange, 2 hour steamed swede.  I was clueless.  Neeps, turnip and swede were all the same thing to me then.  Not until our first major supermarket opened it’s doors a few decades ago, did I ever see one of those strange white things in person.

In Aberdeen, and most of Scotland, a burns night supper is really haggis, swede and mashed tatties.  What other nationalities or generations do, I have no idea.  Some may be more politically correct in the terms they use, but I know what I mean…not that my knowing counts for anything much.   In some countries, swedes are pig swill, but they don’t know what they’re missing out on.  Honestly, swedes/neeps/turnips of the orange variety are ultra tasty indeed.  A bit like a cross between a potato and sweet potato to my taste buds.

Just to make this difficult, my grandfather, who was raised on a farm, called both white and orange varieties neeps, which he was adamant was simply a shorter nickname for turnips of any colour, ie both white and orange, and also called them greentops or greenies.  Young ladies now tend to use the name greenies as a term for nail fungus…..  Confused much?  I’m not.

In America, they tend to call swedes – rutabaga.  I spent ages one day trying to figure out what on earth a rutabaga was.  So disappointing to find out it was just a plain old orange neep.

In short, I dislike the little white round things, and love the bigger yellow/orange things.

The major differences:

White Turnips

  • Smaller and more round than swedes,
  • White flesh when cutting into the turnip.
  • Fast growing, but are very small.   Can be grown in around 6-8 weeks.
  • Need more fertiliser, and are higher maintenance to grow than swedes.
  • Do not do well with frosty weather and must be harvested before the first heavy frost, which can be fairly early, and unpredictable in Scotland.

Swedes/Neeps/Rutabaga/Orange Turnips

  • Often very much bigger than turnips, with a longer shape.
  • Yellow or orange flesh, depending on cooking time.  The longer swedes are cooked, the darker colour the flesh achieves.
  • Are very hands off, and low maintenance to grow.
  • Do very well in frosty weather.  The swede is said to be best after the first winter frost.
  • Came from Sweden originally, where to grow, vegetables need to survive heavy winters.
  • High yield per swede, made them a favourite for Scottish grannies.
  • Sweeter in flavour than a turnip, to which they are indeed, related.

19 thoughts on “What is the difference between Swede, Neeps and Turnip

  1. Growing up in the middle US, the purple-skinned, white-fleshed roots were called “turnips”, while the larger-orange fleshed were (are) “rutabagas”. That said, I find the turnip’s stronger flavor to be a better compliment to the blandness of potatoes, mashed together, while the sweeter rutabaga lends itself well to a sort of Christmas soufflé, mashed and cooked with eggs (not whipped), chicken broth, parsley, nutmeg,, maybe bits of bacon, and not much else

  2. You forgot Cornwall, where Swedes ane called Turnips and Turnips, Swedes.

    You should try the orange one mashed in with mashed potato, seasoned with pepper its magic !

  3. Wish I had read this before we started cooking. . Trying to recreate our intro to haggis, neeps and tatties and were very confused why the turnips were clearly not the lovely orange color we experienced in Scotland. And now we know. Thanks for the info, we will do better next time.

  4. I came across your website when I googled the question ‘What is the difference between a Swede and a Turnip’ and I must say that I loved the clear matter of fact way you communicate, it is very entertaining and I think that I’ve just your followers

  5. I’m a Scot – brought up to call the yellow/orange ones turnips and the white ones swede ( just like Swedish people – fair of skin & hair!). Turnips ( hence neeps) much more pleasant taste!

  6. Just Googled this to settle an argument. I’m scottish but live in New Zealand now. Here in NZ the word turnip is virtally unknown. We can buy “swedes” in our supermarkets which are white or yellow, very small and usually bland or tasteless. I would love to taste a good orange turnip like I used to get in Scotland but have not seen one for years.

    1. I’d miss neeps at Christmas most of all I think. The little ones just don’t have any flavour at all.

      1. They do when they’re peeled, chopped and roasted! Or sliced in a gratin, maybe with some potatoes. One of my favourite vegetables. Plain boiled and mashed – meh…

    2. Not sure, what has happened to the suede turnip. I’m from Ireland and absolutely loved the slight peppery taste of the orange suede. Have bought a few this summer, only 1 had any taste at all. The others were tasteless and watery. So disappointing. In hindsight, I do remember someone saying “ wait till the 1st frost” probably my mother who is long dead. As we have not seen frost in the last few years, think I will have a long wait. I’m blaming global warming. Though we have had 3 months of basically non stop rain. Wettist summer on record.

  7. And don’t forget the Parsneeps! Lol!

  8. The northern states in the USA had many Swedish immigrants in the 19th century. I think maybe that’s why the Swedish turnip is called a rutabaga in the US. It sounds like the Swedish word for the Swedish turnip = rottabagge = “thick root”.

  9. What is a turnip and what is a swede differ as to where you where born.
    This is the Scotish and I think Southern England version North Midland the opposite.
    To me the turnip is the the yellow one and the Swede the white.

    1. I agree, when we grew up in Scotland the large yellow fleshed ones we called turnips (which, by the way we made our Halloween lanterns out of (raw) and yes it took days scraping with a soup spoon then carving triangular eyes, nose and a mouth. Lol. The small white ones I remember calling English turnips.

  10. Well well I am truly surprised. I’m of Welsh heritage (with a little bit of Scottish). We love haggis and I always thought we were cheating using swedes as an accompaniment because they’re so much easier to find than turnips. We mash swede with potatoes to make stwnsh rwdan or stunch as we knew it. Always a staple with our Christmas dinner too. Thanks for clarifying. We were being authentic all along. My Irish husband loves a dram of Islay Malt with it. Celts united!

    1. I love them mashed together also, still do this in Canada

  11. Thank you for clarifying this – we have been arguing about it for years!

  12. Thanks for a comprehensive and informative explanation of the differences and characteristics of turnips and swedes. Even though you confess to some of your information involving an element of guesswork it nonetheless cleared the matter up for me.

  13. You did forget a critical element perhaps of why a Swede is call a Swede. It’s simply short for Swedish Turnip.

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