Up with rutabagas, “the orange of the north”

Photo: Tim Sackton / Flickr The humble yet strangely beautiful rutabaga.

Photo: Tim Sackton / Flickr
The humble yet strangely beautiful rutabaga.

Terje Birkedal
Anchorage, Alaska

The rutabaga has few advocates in the United States and most Americans don’t even know what rutabagas are when they see them in the store. Many think they are weird turnips, and a number of store cashiers have asked me what in the world I do with them.

But the rutabaga has enjoyed a long history in Scandinavian cuisine, at least going back at to the 17th century. It is a root vegetable that originated from a cross (some say accidental) between cabbage and turnip. In Scandinavian stores they are usually the size of softballs, while in the U.S. the ones you see are generally smaller, about the size of baseballs. Rutabagas sport purple tops and yellow bodies. Their flesh possesses a rich yellow color with a hint of sweetness.

I suspect that like potatoes, the rutabaga’s popularity in Scandinavia over the last several hundred years lies in their ability to grow in colder soils. The Little Ice Age which brought very cold, harsh weather conditions to Europe between 800 and 150 years ago made growing grains much more difficult for Nordic people. One solution was to turn to the cold-loving potato and its rooty companion, the rutabaga, for much of their daily nutrition. So the Scandinavians embraced the rutabaga as a valued food in their diet, unlike the people of France and Southern Europe who thought of it as only fit for animal fodder. It is not an accident that when the rutabaga eventually made its way to England, it immediately became known by the name “swede.”

The word rutabaga itself derives from the original Swedish term for the root, rotabagge (translates as something like “stumpy root”). Norwegians call it kålrot (cabbage root) or kålrabi. It is a common food there and may be on the dinner menu two or three times in any given week.

The Norwegian nickname for the rutabaga is “Nordens Oransje” (Orange of the North). This name comes from the recognition that this root is packed with Vitamin C. It is also rich in Vitamin A, calcium, and healthy fiber. However, it does not contain much in the way of calories or carbohydrates, which could be seen as a good thing in our modern diet.

Most Scandinavians eat their rutabagas mashed up. The Norwegians call this mashed-up rutabaga kålrabistappe. You can mash it by itself with a little cream, butter, and nutmeg or you can add carrots or potatoes, or both, to the mash. All are good and there are many recipes available online or in Scandinavian cookbooks. Kålrabistappe goes really well with pinnekjøtt (dried and salted ribs of lamb or mutton), sausage, ham, or other dinner meats.

Now that I have whet your appetite for rutabaga, I’ll conclude with a recipe courtesy of Lillian Laila Owren of Kristiansand, Norway, for a basic kålrabistappe. Yum!

Mashed Rutabagas / Kålrabistappe

Courtesy of Lillian Laila Owren of Kristiansand, Norway
2 lbs kålrabi (rutabaga)
2 carrots (medium sized)
1 quart water
1 tsp. salt or 1 cube vegetable boullion
1/4 cup light whipping cream
2 tbsps. butter
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/4 tsp. nutmeg

Peel and cut kålrabi and the carrots in small pieces.

Add salt or boullion to water, and boil the kålrabi and carrots in water until soft. Drain, reserving 1 cup of water.

Mash the kålrabi and carrots.

Stir in cream, butter, pepper, and nutmeg. Add salt and maybe a dash of the reserved liquid, to taste.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 21, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.