Is Rapini (Broccoli Rabe) a Type of Broccoli?

Posted by Eric Troy on 06 Mar 2013 22:10

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The reason I am posting an article on this question, is not because the information is hard to come by. You can get the information from Wikipedia, of course, but in usual Wikipedia fashion the obvious question, asked in the title, is never answered. And that is related to the theme of this article, since what I want to talk about is where to find answers! First, of course, I'll answer the question.

Rapini, which is commonly called broccoli rabe in the United States, is related to broccoli, but is a much closer relative to the turnip. The term 'broccoli rabe', in Italian, means "turnip broccoli." It is related to both broccoli and turnip, because broccoli and turnips are related to one another. They are all of the Brassicaceae family1, or in more common terms, the cabbage family. You might find it spelled broccoli raab, as well, and this may be a more correct way to spell it. But I've used the more common spelling. It is also called crime di rapa, broccoletti, ruvo kale, and a bunch of other confusing names, including Italian turnip.

Now, if you looked this up on Wikipedia, you would find out it was part of the Brassicaceae or mustard family with the scientific monicker Brassica rapa and that it was in the cultivar group that the turnip is in. You still wouldn't know if it was related to broccoli, unless you clicked on at least two more links.

Broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower are cultivars of Brassica oleracea. Other cultivars are kale and Brussels sprouts. All of these were derived from a wild cabbage. Each of these would be considered a subspecies of the basic species. I already mentioned this cabbage in Where Does Coleslaw Come From?

broccoli rabe, rapini, broccoli raab, broccoletti

Rapini or Broccoli Rabe
image by Roedelius via wikimedia commons

broccoli rabe, rapini, broccoli raab, broccoletti

Rapini or Broccoli Rabe
image by Roedelius via wikimedia commons

On the other hand, rapini, turnip (the root vegetable of which we also eat the greens), napa cabbage, and bok choy are all cultivars of Brassica rapa L. If you read the Wikipedia entry on this you will be hopelessly confused. The information given is almost useless to a casual researcher. Why? Because in order to present information, an author must make certain assumptions as to who his or her audience is and what their level of exposure to the subject matter has been. Wikipedia articles are built from the individual entries of random editors, each of which has their own assumptions. Or, if it hasn't been subsequently edited, it may have been written on the fly as a sub-entry for some other larger related entry. The point is, however, it is not written for the reader, it is written for the community, much like postings on message boards are written for other forum members, except that Wikipedia is more formal and is meant to be articles. The point is, however, that the point of view is important in such writings. Whether you find the particular piece of information you want is very close to being a chance event.

Now that you've found, at least, that rapini is related to both broccoli and turnips, you may be left wondering what the heck a cultivar is. For some, like me, that is a welcome thing. I like finding out new things, when it is a subject that interests me. But assuming you are not particularly interested in this kind of thing, you may have been much more happy to been given a straightforward and simple answer to your casual query. So if something like Wikipedia isn't always the way to get information on foods, where do you turn? You could, of course, turn to a more specialist site like this, but I'm just one guy and even if my information can be said to be accurate (I do my damnedest), I don't have a drove of dedicated volunteers to write everything for me so I can't cover everything. Therein lies the rub, for any given question, there is only a few specialist sites like mine which would have bothered to provide in-depth info on the subject, and you may not come across them in a Google search right away. Furthermore, you'll have to find a different site to answer your next question.

On the other hand, if a site has information on what seems like everything you can bet it is user provided or what is called a content mill. Meaning that the info is largely shallow, poorly researched, etc. May seem like I'm singing my own praises here but actually, there is this old-fashioned way of getting information: books!

Should you turn to cook books? Well, I would not recommend that unless you happen to know that the author of the cook book takes particular care in researching such matters as what vegetables are related to on another. Most cook book authors, whether professional chefs or accomplished home cooks, are happy to repeat whatever they've been told and, if they mention any background on an ingredient at all, will likely get it wrong or at least provide very incomplete information. Their purpose is to give you a recipe, not to present you with food science. This doesn't mean that there does not exist cook books that have very good and correct entries on rapini, just that cook books are not generally a reliable source of this kind of information.

So, clue one is that if you want a good answer on the question "Is Rapini (broccoli rabe) a Type of Brocolli?," you must seek out purpose sources. A purpose source is a source that exists specifically to present this type of information. Then, within that category, you must find one that seeks to present it to a lay-person. Or, of course, an intelligent and well-educated lay-person like yourself! You may be a "foodie" but that doesn't mean you want to spend five hours researching rapini, right?

baby broccoli, broccolini, or Asparation

Broccolini (Baby Broccoli, Asparation)
is not the same as Broccoli Rabe.

image by Agriffin via wikimedia

baby broccoli, broccolini, or Asparation

Broccolini (Baby Broccoli, Asparation)
is not the same as Broccoli Rabe.

image by Agriffin via wikimedia

The problem with books might surprise you. Many books that will contain just the type of information you need, will be passed over by the average Joe, because they seem to be too academic. Here, the old adage "don't judge a book by its cover" comes in. And also, don't judge a book by its title. You see, sometimes titles are chosen very poorly and a fancy "academic" title is chosen for a book that may be highly accurate but that does not use a lot of fancy technical language. A lot depends on the publisher, which might insist an author change a title to one that seems more "credible," or something like that.

Yes, I have an example in mind. A book I would recommend for quick and accurate entries on everything produce is Guide to Produce Identification, Fabrication and Utilization by Brad Matthews and Paul Wigsten. It is part of a "kitchen Pro Series" by the Culinary Institutes of America. They also have a guide to poultry and to meat, with the same unfortunate and unwieldy titles.

Identification, fabrication, and utilization are absolutely crappy words. I'd cringe if I found that I had written "utilize" instead of use. And what in the world is fabrication supposed to mean in regards to produce? You don't make produce, you grow it. Do they mean: How to prepare? Could be. Sometimes people say "prepare a dish" instead of "cook a dish" when they want to sound fancy, but preparation usually refers to the steps you take to get an ingredient ready to cook. For example, you might remove the tougher or woodier parts from a vegetable like broccoli rabe. But the word fabrication sounds like we are building a vegetable in our engineering lab.

Sure, identification is not such a bad word. We could all understand that one. But all in all, the wording used in the title makes the book seem like it is heavy on the science. Those words are jargon and they do not reflect, at all, the accessibility of the information. If you had consulted this book to answer the question raised in the title, you would have quickly found out that broccoli rabe (rapini) is a member of the cabbage family, etc. but it is more closely related to the turnip. That is the same information I gave above, but you had to really pay close attention to get it! That is, both broccoli and rapini are of the same family, but they are cultivars of different species, rapini being a cultivar of the same species that brings up the turnip.

The point of all this was not to trash Wikipedia. Although I consider it a problematic for it's lack of focus, I think it is a great repository of information, with some drawbacks. There is something to be said for one, or two at most, authors for a piece. That way, you know where the buck stops, so to speak. Or, to use an expression appropriate to a food site: Too many cooks spoil the broth! It was also not my purpose to trash cook books, although so many cookbook are regurgitations of all the cook books that came before. The point is that people often turn to sub-par books because they seem more accessible, having been turned off by nothing more than bad titles! On the other hand, a silly and "mass-market" title may often mean that just the opposite is happening. Silly title sometimes equals silly book.

Another good book, although I have spotted some inaccuracies, is Field Guide to Produce: How to Identify, Select, and Prepare Virtually Every Fruit and Vegetable at the Market by Aliza Green. I wouldn't rely on it for research, but for choosing and preparing, it's okay. The title is much better, don't you think? But I could still quibble with calling the market the "field" and using the word virtual, a misleading marketing word, both of which glide into the territory of silly. But for the home cook, it is very comprehensive and the price is much more reasonable.

This book states broccoli rabe and rapini are related but two different things. The author may have confused this with the problem of broccolini which is often mistaken for another name for broccoli rabe, but which is a little closer to Chinese broccoli, called Gai Lan. The reason is probably the similarity between broccoletti, another name for broccoli rabe, and broccolini. The book does get broccolini right, although more information would be useful.

Broccolini is a hybrid of broccoli and what is known as Chinese broccoli, Chinese kale, or Gai Lan. It is often called baby broccoli and broccolini is actually a trademarked name of one of its growers, Mann Packing Company in Salitas, California. Originally, it was developed by Sakata Seed. Asparation is the name of their seed, by the way. That may seem like a strange name, but its better than the original one: Aspabroc. Yikes. It is mostly broccoli but the Gai Lan portion of it makes all the difference.

Broccoli rabe is very different from Broccolini. Personally, I hate broccoli rabe. I find its intense bitterness repulsive and I really do not care to "deal with it." However, the bitterness seems to vary from one bunch to the next, so that sometimes it is agreeably bitter and other times it's repulsive. Please, save me the insults to the ruined American Palate, I've probably eaten as many different kinds of cuisines that you have, Mr. Food Snob.

But broccolini is like brocoli with less of a cabbage-like sulfur taste, and much more sweetness. It is crunchy/tender and can be used in all sorts of dishes. I've seen TV cooks cooking with it and calling it brocolli rabe, or vice versa, unfortunately.

Whereas broccoli rabe needs to be handled with care to get rid of some of the bitterness (quick blanch than a saute or grill, for example) broccolini is good to go no matter what you choose to do with it, as long as you do not over-cook it, which would go for most vegetables. It is available year-round but its peek season is considered to be September through April, same as broccoli rabe.

The one book I didn't actually describe is the BEST book of the three mentioned on this page. You could probably tell what I thought of it by the fact that I gave it a big splashy picture smack-dab in the middle of the article. The amount of information given on each vegetable is amazing. We're talking in-depth articles on the history of the vegetable, not just the Latin names (although that too). That in itself would be enough but you also get availability, storage, selection, and preparation. It is also full of recipes and photos. This particular book should be considered both a reference book and a cook book, and it is well worth the price: Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini: The Essential Reference: 500 Recipes, 275 Photographs by Elizabeth Schneider. I am only including an Amazon link for this book, out of the three, because it is the one I am actually recommending. The title makes the bold claim that the book is an essential reference. Well, if an essential reference is one that you find yourself turning to again and again, then yes, Schneider delivers on the claim!

Broccoli Rabe's Connection with Canola Oil

I've left a lot of broccoli rabe research out of the body of this article, as it's true purpose was to make a point of about research, and not to provide an encyclopedia entry on the vegetable. However, I did want to mention a confusing issue, which is the plant's frequent association with canola oil, otherwise known as rapeseed oil.

Rapeseed oil, which is called canola oil when sold as cooking oil, for obvious reasons, is extracted from the seeds of brassica napus, otherwise known as oilseed rape or canola. It is the world's third leading source of vegetable oil but this oil is also used for industry and for biofuels. There are also food forms of the plant, which you might recognize. The "tuberous" form is otherwise known as swede or rutabaga and the leafy form is sometimes known as kale, but also of the less than appetizing name of fodder rape. I know the rutabaga from down South and most of us have heard of kale; there is even a diet associated with it and it's become one of those so-called superfoods.

Remember, from above, that our broccoli rabe is Brassica rapa. Well, it has been thought, and some texts state, that B. napus was the result of a hybridization between B. rapa and Brassica oleracea, or wild cabbage. This association has caused confusion, especially since the rape part is easy to associate with rapa, rabe, or raab, and the rape spelling is also sometimes used. Not only do some authors on the net think that rapeseed oil comes from broccoli rabe, but that broccoli rabe was developed recently for the oil and that we eat it just by chance. Neither is true. Rapeseed oil does not come from broccoli rabe. The simplest thing to say is that the two plants are closely related.

The exact origin of B. napa is still in question. It has been suggested, through genetic analysis of many related species, that B. olerecea is not likely to be the closest /maternal progenitor of B. napa, but that B. rapa may well be the closest existing maternal ancestor of the plant. Multiple hybridization events are also judged to be likely. It is unknown if the initial hybridization occurred naturally or because of cultivation, but no wild populations have been found, favoring the cultivation scenario. The plant has been messed with quite a lot in recent years, to tease out various qualities desired in the oil, and to foster resistance to pests, etc. But it is not a recent plant, as the earliest reliable documented record appears 500 years ago.

This is still recent as far as plants go, but a lot longer than the 40 or so years I keep reading about. B. rapa may have been used for oil purpose in Europe as early as teh 13th century and even earlier in India, China, and Japan. This may have helped further the mix-up between B. rap and B. napus. Rapeseed oil was the major lamp oil in Europe by the 16th century.

The plant may well have derived on some farm where cabbage, broccoli rabe, kale, and other relatives were growing close together. The scientific discussions of its origin are way beyond my ability to understand, as well as the hopelessly confusing discussions of all the different varieties of these plants grown around the world. It is clear, however, that canola oil does not come from broccoli rabe!1,2

1. Allender, Charlotte J., and Graham J. King. "Origins of the Amphiploid Species Brassica Napus L. Investigated by Chloroplast and Nuclear Molecular Markers." BMC Plant Biology 10.1 (2010): 54.
2. Vollmann, Johann, and Istvan Rajcan. Oil Crops. New York: Springer, 2009. 93-96.

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