Eggplant is startling in its morphologic versatility and variety of taste possibilities. If you only regard it as that plump purple mystery of a thing sitting on shelves at the grocer’s, think again.
Laurie Colwin, a talented food writer who died young, once wrote an essay titled “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant,” about her early days starting out in New York City. She confessed,
When I was alone, I lived on eggplant, the stove-top cook’s strongest ally. I fried it and stewed it, and ate it crisp and sludgy, hot and cold. It was cheap and filling and was delicious in all manner of strange combinations.
Contrary to Colwin’s almost orgiastic experience with eggplant, that purple blimp-like vegetable never floated my boat. And certainly never sent me into raptures.
As a kid, I gagged down strips of eggplant coated with beaten egg and crushed saltine crackers or coarse yellow cornmeal — both of my parents grew up far from the South of their forebearers, but the food patterns at the dinner table told the tale better than could courthouse records.
That’s how I came to initially hate the bitter, squishy-textured purple menace (as I then thought of it) with enough aliases to put Al Capone to shame.
A member of the nightshade family, along with the potato and the tomato, eggplant — or Solanum melongena — goes by brinjal, an Indian name, as well as “vatimgana (Sanskrit), al-badinjan (Arabic), aubergine (French), badingan (Hindi), melongena (Sanskrit), berenjena (Spanish), albergínia (Catalan), Guinea squash (U.S. South), nasu (Japan),” according to Janet Clarkson, author of The Old Foodie blog, as well as the recently released Pies: A Global History and the upcoming Menus From History: Historic Meals and Recipes for Every Day of the Year, Volume 1.
Other names include “garden egg (Africa),” because of the early varieties being white and shaped like eggs, hence the name “eggplant.” Mala insana (early Italian name — “mad apple” — don’t you love that name?), egg fruit (Australia), garden fruit (Africa), bitterballs (Africa), and melanzana (Italian), plus many other monikers, prove that the eggplant moved around a lot. No doubt thanks to its early beginnings in human history and its numerous border crossings, so to speak — no real borders existed for a long time.
So just where did eggplants begin their earthly journey?
Historians claim that India cradled the seeds of the species that grew into eggplant, but research in China strongly suggest a possible Chinese origin. A December 2008 article in the Annals of Botany, by Jin-Xiu Wang1, Tian-Gang Gao, and Sandra Knapp, “Ancient Chinese Literature Reveals Pathways of Eggplant Domestication,” states that as early as 59 BC Chinese writers wrote of experimentation in eggplant cultivation, particularly in regard to “size, shape, and taste.”
And experiment the cultivators did.
We end today’s foray into eggplant’s origin myth with a rogue’s gallery of the varied types grown across the globe.
The reason for “egg” in “eggplant.”
Out of Africa; eggplants in the market in Kedougou, Senegal.
More white eggplant, from Sapa market in Vietnam.
Skinny purple eggplant, from Dali — in China.
Green Thai eggplant.
Purple eggplant from New Jersey.
Orange Turkish eggplant.
Yellow eggplant from Ghana.
Tiny green Laotian eggplant.
Wild little eggplants from the Philippines.
More green eggplants.
Tiny white-green eggplant from Thailand.
Still more Thai eggplant — green, oblong.
Selling eggplants in Myanmar.
Purple-white eggplants from a U.S. farmers’ market.
And that old American supermarket standby, the purple menace.
More to come, including eggplant kitchen wizardry far evolved beyond the fried eggplant of childhood.
© 2009 C. Bertelsen