Eggplant, Out of Africa

eggplant-tiny-green-thai

Known in Britain by 1587, the “Guinea squash,” as people originally called it, white, shaped like an egg, eventually became known as “eggplant.” Around the same time, a cousin of this plant appeared, the “purple menace,” as I call it, and it took over. The “Guinea squash” receded into the culinary backwaters of Europe. The elongated purple fruit triumphed.

A mythical story could be constructed around this tale of these two botanically similar “vegetables,” actually fruits.

The “Guinea squash” remains, in the opinion of the author of the chapter on eggplant in Lost Crops of Africa: Vegetables, “Africa’s answer to the tomato.”

And indeed it even resembles tomatoes, in its red manifestation. When it comes to eggplant, a whole rainbow of colors is possible.  According to the Lost Crops author, “Among Africa’s overall eggplant diversity it is possible to find fruits in white, cream, yellow, green, lime, orange, pink, red, plum, burgundy, lavender, violet, purple, or dusky black. Many come striped and multi-colored. And all possess a glossy skin that tends to shimmer in the sunlight. Beyond being egg-shaped, they can be also round, flat, ribbed, and pumpkin-like.” Yes.

Solanum aethiopicum consists of four distinct groups, varieties within the Gilo Group. Those who love etymology and names will love the “Guinea squash,” with its diverse names in English:scarlet eggplant, mock tomato, garden egg, garden huckleberry, or gilo.” In Sierra Leone, cooks call it Kobo-Kobo.

Photo credit: Mike Blyth

Photo credit: Mike Blyth

Women tend to be farmers in many parts of Africa. It is they who grow (and cook) the “Guinea squash.” Unlike the “purple menace,” which cannot be eaten raw, the “Guinea squash” can. And again, unlike its purple cousin, the “Guinea squash” stores well — for up to two months — and many population groups dry it for use during times of food scarcity.

Because Africa for so long relied on oral culture to pass information along, few written records exist of the diet prior to the arrival of Europeans and Arabs. However, books like The Interesting Narrative of The Life of Olaudah_Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African, by Olaudah Equiano and published in London in 1789, give us some interesting glimpses, although the mention of corn and beans [Note: black-eyed peas are indigenous to Africa] indicates contact with non-Africans:

Our manner of living is entirely plain; for as yet the natives are unacquainted with those refinements in cookery which debauch the taste: bullocks, goats, and poultry, supply the greatest part of their food. These constitute likewise the principal wealth of the country, and the chief articles of its commerce. The flesh is usually stewed in a pan; to make it savoury we sometimes use also pepper, and other spices, and we have salt made of wood ashes. Our vegetables are mostly plantains, eadas [eddoes], yams, beans, and Indian corn.

Tadeusz Lewicki’s West African Food in the Middle Ages, According to Arabic Sources (1974, reprinted 2009) comments briefly on the origin of eggplant in West Africa:

Aubergine (egg plant)

Among the plants cultivated during the first half of the fourteenth century in Kānem, a country to the north of Lake Chad, as well as in Mālī, al-cOmarī records the aubergine — Solanum melongena (Arabic badinjān). Aubergines were known to the Arabs at a relatively early date; the botanist Ibn Baytār mentions them as early as the thirteenth century. I suppose that this plant came to West Africa from the Fezzan, shortly before the fourteenth century, and was not very common. But I do not suppose that its occurrence on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea, where it has been attested by modern travellers, can have been prior to the arrival of the Portuguese on the coast. Nowadays aubergines are cultivated and consumed by the Wolof from Senegambia [Senegal, The Gambia] and many coastal peoples; they may have borrowed the plant from the Europeans.

Regardless of the “Guinea squash’s” relative newness in Africa, cooks devised a plethora of recipes for it, as a quick glance at the indexes of cookbooks will prove. The list that follows comes from just one African cookbook on my shelves (Zainabu’s African Cookbook with Food and Stories, by Zainabu Kpaka Kallon):

Kobo-Kobo Semabu Lane Curry Chicken
Kobo-Kobo in Jayanh Beans
Kobo-Kobo Lamb Chicken
Kobo-Kobo in Lamb Langoyama
Kobo-Kobo Avocado Honey Sauce
Kobo-Kobo Baindu Koma Chicken in Seafood Sauce
Kobo-Kobo Chicken Sauce
Kobo-Kobo Lamb in Mushroom Sauce
Kobo-Kobo Lenils and Lamb in Sesame Sauce
Vegetables with Kobo-Kobo Avocado Honey Sauce

And the fact that proportionally fewer cookbooks in English on African cooking exist than for other cuisines, imagine the myriad other ways there are to cook and eat eggplant in Africa …

eggplant-africa-senegal

Photo credit: John Atherton

Spicy Pumpkin and Eggplant Stew
Serves 4 generously

(This recipe is adapted from Elizabeth A. Jackson’s South of the Sahara: Traditional Cooking from the Lands of West Africa.)

1/4 small sugar or pie pumpkin or 1/2 small squash like butternut
1/2 eggplant (about 1/2 pound)
1 onion, half coarsely chopped and the other half sliced
1 large tomato, half coarsely chopped and half thinly sliced
1 green bell pepper, seeded, half coarsely chopped and half thinly sliced
1/4 cup peanut oil
1 T. tomato paste
1/2 t. ground coriander seed
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. ground red pepper (cayenne)

Thinly sliced slivers of green pepper, for garnish
Fresh cilantro leaves, chopped, for garnish

Peel pumpkin/squash and cut into 1-inch pieces. Set aside.

Peel eggplant and cut into 1-inch pieces. Set aside.

Grind the coarsely chopped vegetables (onion, tomatoes, green pepper) in a food processor or blender until well ground and blended.

Heat oil over medium-high heat in a heavy non-reactive pot. Add the ground vegetables and fry for about 5-10 minutes, stirring often to prevent sticking. Liquid should evaporate almost completely.

Add the sliced vegetables (onion, tomatoes, green pepper) tomato paste, coriander, salt, and red pepper to the pan and continue to simmer for 10 minutes, stirring often to prevent scorching.

Stir in pumpkin/squash cubes and 1 cup of water. Reduce heat to medium. Cover and cook for 10 minutes or so.

Toss in the eggplant cubes and mix in well, trying to submerge cubes in the liquid. Cover, reduce heat to low, and cook 20 minutes longer, making sure that there’s enough water to keep the sauce from sticking. When a knife pierces eggplant easily, the stew is done.

Serve with rice or fufu, garnished with green pepper strips and cilantro.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

About these ads