Pickles are an integral staple of Turkish cuisine, and a glass of pickle juice is famed as a quick, tasty and natural cure for even the fiercest of headaches.

In an unassuming storefront tucked away on a bustling Istanbul street, an older man was assembling a vividly colourful package of pickles. Drawing from buckets of cauliflower, beetroot, plums and peppers, he mixed them into a plump bundle inside a sturdy, clear plastic bag and sealed them in a pool of their own juices.

Adem Altun, 64, is a third-generation pickle man who has practiced his craft since he was a boy. He operates the original location of Pelit Turşuları in Istanbul’s Kurtuluş neighbourhood, with branches in different pockets of the city. It’s one of a number of classic pickle shops in the city that adhere to decades-old techniques passed down from generation to generation.

A meal without pickles is not complete

“For us, a meal without pickles is not complete. There are pickles on every table. Sometimes this drops in the summer because pickles prefer the cold,” Altun said.

But I wasn’t there to learn about pickles, or to pick up an assorted mix for the dinner table. I’d come to his shop – conveniently located a few blocks away from my apartment – for a different purpose: I’d drunk a little too much the previous night, and a glass of pickle juice is famed as a quick, tasty and natural cure for even the fiercest of headaches.

“In terms of minerals it is very rich,” Altun said, offering an explanation as he served me a glass.   

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Pickles are an integral staple of Turkish cuisine; here, if it grows from the ground, chances are it can be pickled. Pickle (turşu) culture in Turkey dates at least as far back as early Ottoman times, and has remained a necessary element of a cuisine that is highly diverse, complex and regionally varied.

The prominence of the city’s pickles is perhaps best witnessed in the old Istanbul quarter of Eminönü. Boats tilting on the edge of the Golden Horn, the strait that begins where the Bosphorus meets the Sea of Marmara, grill up fish sandwiches to eager crowds of hungry locals. Though the fish no longer comes from the city’s nearby waters and is now imported, eating a sandwich on a small stool near the rocking boats is one of the city’s most iconic dining experiences. Numerous vendors operate adjacent stands selling pickle juice, as well as pickled carrots, cabbage and peppers, to be eaten alongside the fish.

This age-old method of preserving produce has the added benefit of imbuing it with a vigorous flavour kick. While in some countries, pickled goods are limited to sauerkraut, cucumber spears and sliced jalapeños, this is not the case in Turkey, where dozens of varieties of brined vegetables and fruits – including those that may appear wildly unorthodox to the untrained palate, such as tart green plums – are enjoyed at dinner tables throughout the country as an integral part of a balanced, nutritious meal. They pair harmoniously with a heaping plate of pilav üstü kuru fasulye (buttered rice under stewed white beans) or yoğurtlu makarna (pasta with yogurt sauce).  

Although pickle juice is not usually drunk alongside meals, one type of pickle juice popular in the evenings with food is şalgam. This flavourful and often spicy beverage is served alongside the anise-laced spirit rakı while eating grilled meat. Dark purple in hue, the concoction is culled from red carrots and turnips.

“Pickle shops in Turkey are not only a bold and colourful statement for the variety of Turkish produce, but also the sustainable approach we have towards it,” said Somer Sivrioğlu, a Turkish chef who runs two acclaimed restaurants in Sydney, Australia. “From classic varieties of peppers and cucumber to rare examples of unripened stuffed eggplants, green almonds and walnuts, pickling is an ancient culture of Anatolia where fresh produce is consumed in season and the excess are pickled or used in other preservation methods.”

Whenever I can feel the lingering effects of a hangover, I seek out a pickle shop

I remember my first brush with the brine like it was yesterday. On one winter day, a bit further inland from the boats on the Eminönü shore, I found myself stricken with the dreaded creeper hangover, which peaked by the late afternoon and showed no sign of relenting anytime soon. I passed by a pickle juice stand, and a lightbulb switched on in my pounding head. I decided to see if the stuff was the hangover cure it was said to be.

I was served the only type of pickle juice on offer: the liquid was a tantalising shade somewhere between purple and pink – it clearly had beetroot in the mix – and I downed it in two gulps and continued on my way. To my amazement, the hangover faded in what seemed like seconds.

Since then, whenever I can feel the lingering effects of a hangover, I seek out a pickle shop. At a mere 1 TL for a glass, it’s much more natural and cheaper than any painkiller. I always make sure to strike up a chat with the person behind counter, who is sure to wax poetic on the health benefits of their wares.

On another visit to Pelit Turşuları, I asked for a slightly spicy glass of the juice, indulging in my penchant for hot peppers. Altun mixed the juices from pickled cucumbers and beetroot and topped it off with a hint of pickled pepper juice for the extra jolt. It was salty, spicy and soothing all at once, and I drank it down quickly from the plastic cup. It was so good that I asked Altun for his brine recipe.

“Rock salt, vinegar and garlic,” he told me.

This is a point of contention that was famously blown up by a scene in the classic 1978 film Neşeli Günler (Happy Days), where a couple gets in a shouting match about whether pickles should be made with lemon or vinegar. The scene was filmed inside Asri Turşucu, a famous pickle shop that first opened in 1913 and has been in its current Cihangir neighbourhood location since 1938.

Asri's Baran Güreler, another third-generation pickle master, says he prefers lemon.

“We're not just talking cabbage and cucumbers, we have different products including cherries, plums and okra, and we've shown these to a new generation,” Güreler said of his shop that offers dozens of choices.

Begüm Atakan, the self-proclaimed Pickle Queen, brings a more modern, experimental approach to the trade. She produces an artisanal and aesthetically pleasing array of concoctions and pickled combinations via fermentation methods, which are showcased on her Instagram account to more than 14,000 followers.

“You can do fantastic fermented pickles without adding any vinegar. I do add lemon, especially to my summer pickles because I think it adds a fresh, clean, summery taste,” she said, adding that she was drawn to fermentation after seeing how it was used in different ethnic cuisines while living in the US. She now also produces kombucha, hot sauce and mustard.

The Pickle Queen's expertise is keenly sought after in Istanbul, where she regularly offers workshops on seasonal techniques.

“Turkish-style pickles are my favourite food. Since I was a child I was drawn to pickles, I like the salty-sour-crunchy texture,” she said.

Old or new, classic or modern, Istanbul's picklers adhere to finely honed techniques that result in a deeply delicious and practical building block of Turkish cuisine. A pickle isn't just a pickle.

“This isn't a job that everyone can do. Pickles cannot just be made from any vegetable or with any water,” Altun said.

Pickles cannot just be made from any vegetable or with any water

Whether it’s the heady mineral blend or magic in the water that provides pickle juice with its healing powers, it’s comforting knowing that my next hangover can be quickly quelled, as long as I’m in close proximity to a pickle shop.

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