The Humble Rutabaga: An Interesting Vegetable and Its History

The rutabaga is an interesting and potentially tasty vegetable that’s also known as a swede. When it’s prepared properly, I think it has a delicious flavour. It’s popular in some cultures, but people in others wonder why anyone would want to eat it. People seem to have a love or hate relationship with the vegetable. I sit firmly in the love camp.

rutabaga

A rutabaga grown in Canada and photographed in British Columbia

I’ve used my coffee/tea cup to show the typical size of a rutagaba in the photo above. The vegetable is larger and has a less delicate appearance than the purple top turnips in my local grocery stores, though it somewhat resembles them in colour. Turnips generally have a more globular shape and lighter purple coloration on their top section as well as being smaller. (The rutabaga in my photo was trimmed at the top and bottom.) A rutabaga is sometimes referred to as a yellow turnip, which might be confusing for shoppers. It costs considerably less per pound than turnips, at least where I live.

I grew up in Britain, where rutabagas are known as swedes. I’ve read that the latter name is common around the world. In North America, however, the vegetable is known as a rutabaga. Now that I live in Canada, I tend to use both names. The vegetables are also known as yellow turnips, as mentioned above, and as neeps. The plant is thought to have originated in either Scandinavia or Russia.

I have fond memories of the mashed and buttered swedes cooked by my mother. The addition of a little pepper made a lovely dish. The boiled vegetables had a rich orange colour and were delicious.

mashed_swedes

Cooked and mashed swedes (Photo by Dnor, public domain license)

A rutabaga is a root vegetable and is thought to have arisen from a cross between a turnip and a cabbage. This isn’t as strange an idea as it might sound. Both plants belong to the family Brassicaceae, also known as the Cruciferae. The genus Brassica belongs to the family and is significant with respect to vegetables that we commonly eat.

  • Brassica oleracea includes many plants that we eat as greens, including cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and kale. They look quite different from each other, but scientists say that they all belong to the same species.
  • Brassica rapa also provides us with greens, but in the case of turnips we more often eat the roots.
  • Brassica napus includes a number of useful plants. Brassica napus ssp. napus is commonly known as rapeseed and is valued for the oil that the seeds contain. Brassica napus ssp. napobrassica is the rutabaga. As is the case for turnips, the leaves of rutabagas can be eaten, but the roots are more commonly used for food.

Cruciferous vegetables are nutritious. Rutabaga roots are a good source of fibre, vitamin C (reportedly even when cooked), vitamin B6, potassium, magnesium, manganese, and phosphorus. They contain sulphur-containing chemicals called glucosinolates. These contribute to the slightly bitter taste of the vegetables and may reduce the risk of cancer. When the vegetables are chopped or chewed, the glucosinolates are converted to other compounds, which are believed to be bioactive (active inside the body). These compounds are thought to be the ones that reduce the chance of some types of cancer.

The vegetables are often grown in different varieties with different appearances. I believe the rutabaga in my photo is the Laurentian variety. This is the most popular type and is grown in British Columbia. The roots of the nadmorska variety of rutabaga shown below are elongated and have a different colouration from the one sold in my area.

Rutabaga,_variety_nadmorska

The nadmorska variety of rutabaga (Photo by Seedambassadors, CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

Both turnips and rutabagas can be eaten raw, but most people prefer to cook them. Of course, if they’re eaten raw they must be washed thoroughly, like any other vegetable.  Raw rutabaga has a pale yellow flesh. I rarely eat the vegetable without cooking it, however. It’s flavourful when it’s raw and has a slightly peppery taste, which could be interesting in a meal. Unfortunately, it irritates my mouth. I have no problem eating cooked rutabagas.

Cooking rutabagas makes them soft, sweet, and a darker colour. Depending on the cooking method and time, they may become a beautiful shade of orange. The flavour is lovely. There is a slight underlying bitterness, but it doesn’t bother me. In fact, I find it a nice contrast to the sweetness. To me, it’s puzzling why some people hate rutabagas. Perhaps the bitterness tastes stronger to some people than others. It’s possible that people might like the vegetable when it’s cooked and prepared in a specific way.

I peel and slice rutabaga (or part of a rutabaga) and then cook the slices in the microwave. A single serving doesn’t take long to cook. Though the addition of butter and pepper is nice, I usually eat the slices without additions. Some people like to mix cooked rutabaga with gravy.

My mother used to boil chunks in water and then drain and mash them. The vegetable can also be steamed. Some people roast rutabagas on their own or with other vegetables. Others caramelize them.

rutabag lantern (2)

A rutabaga Halloween lantern at the Museum of Country Life in Ireland (Photo by Rannpháirtí anaithnid, CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

At least in some parts of the world, Halloween lanterns were once carved from rutabagas or turnips, not pumpkins. The rutabaga lantern above certainly looks menacing. There are conflicting reports about the purpose of the lanterns. Both reports may be true, depending on the location where the tradition existed.

One report says that the lanterns were designed to repel evil spirits that travelled between the world of the living and the world of the dead at Halloween. Another says that they were designed to welcome ancestors passing through the thinned veil hiding the other world. Halloween was once a significant time because it was believed that contact between the living and the dead was much easier than normal.

The magical elements connected to rutabagas may have disappeared in many areas, but they are still an interesting vegetable. I think they’re a great addition to a meal.

References

  • Nutrients in boiled rutabagas from SELFNutritionData (which gets its data from the United States Department of Agriculture)
  • Potential health benefits of cruciferous vegetables from the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University

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