Eggplant: An Exploration (Part I)

Eggplant II
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

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.

Photo credit: Eliot Phillips
Photo credit: Eliot Phillips

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.

Photo credit: Rochelle Hartman
Photo credit: Rochelle Hartman

The reason for “egg” in “eggplant.”

Photo credit: John Atherton
Photo credit: John Atherton

Out of Africa; eggplants in the market in Kedougou, Senegal.

Photo credit: Mark Robertson
Photo credit: Mark Robertson

More white eggplant, from Sapa market in Vietnam.

Photo credit: Alexandra Moss
Photo credit: Alexandra Moss

Skinny purple eggplant, from Dali — in China.

Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker
Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker

Green Thai eggplant.

Photo credit: Kate Elliott
Photo credit: Kate Elliott

Purple eggplant from New Jersey.

Photo credit: Kristen Taylor
Photo credit: Kristen Taylor

Orange Turkish eggplant.

eggplant-yellow-africa

Yellow eggplant from Ghana.

Photo credit: Alexandra Moss
Photo credit: Alexandra Moss

Tiny green Laotian eggplant.

Photo credit: K. Santos
Photo credit: K. Santos

Wild little eggplants from the Philippines.

eggplants-more-green

More green eggplants.

eggplant-tiny-green-thai

Tiny white-green eggplant from Thailand.

eggplant-thai-green-oblong

Still more Thai eggplant — green, oblong.

Photo credit: Meghann and Paul Sheridan
Photo credit: Meghann and Paul Sheridan

Selling eggplants in Myanmar.

Photo credit: Andy Ciordia
Photo credit: Andy Ciordia

Purple-white eggplants from a U.S. farmers’ market.

Eggplant II
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

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

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