Considering that people over the centuries have blamed eggplant for “causing insanity, acting as an aphrodisiac, and serving as a dental cosmetic,”* it’s no wonder eggplant tended not to “take” in certain cultures.
United States, yes. India, no.
Some experts say India gave birth to eggplant, called brinjal or baingun, originally called vartaka or vrntaka. Actually, it looks like the Indo-Burma takes the honor of first creating eggplant, as early as 600 BC. Then it spread to India proper. But people didn’t scarf it up right away, as clearly stated in a fourth-century Sanskrit document, Markandeya-Purana, that eggplant belonged to a class of “undesirable things.”
According to Marie-Christine Dauny and Jules Janick, the Chinese mentioned the eggplant very early on in several texts, including:
the Atlas of Plants in Southern China written during the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316 CE), the Qimi Yiaoshu, a practical handbook of agriculture written at the time of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-581), … and in the Ts’i Min Yao Shu, a work on Agriculture of the 5th century. (“History and Iconography of Eggplant,” Chronica Horticulturae, vol. 47 (3), 2007)
Several varieties arose one humans began fiddling with the eggplant’s DNA.
Indian eggplant tends not to have the seeds that plague Western eggplants, making them less bitter.
In India, cooks prepare the eggplant in a myriad of ways and, unlike plump Western eggplants, there’s no need to salt, peel, or rinse the vegetable. (How nice!) Chunks of eggplant end up as fritters, in stews and dal, as curries, batter-fried, or pickled.
According to the Indian Ayurvedic system of eating, eggplant belongs to the Rajasic category. Foods in this category tend to “stimulate more fire, outward motion, creativity, aggression, passion. … Traditionally in Ayurveda they were recommended for warriors before battle.”** And a folktale of a “Princess Aubergine” existed in the Punjab.***
A huge body of writing exists about the eggplant in India. English authors like May Byron tried to make the vegetable popular in Britain, but didn’t succeed so well.
For a taste of eggplant, take a look at the following video. Cookery teacher Manjula gives the viewer an idea of what form eggplant takes in Indian cuisine.
But she just barely begins to stir the pot when it comes to the versatility of eggplant.
*”Eggplants,” by Maura Carlin Officer, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, edited by Andrew F. Smith
**Ayurvedic Cooking for Westerners, by Amadea Morningstar (1995), recommended by Deborah Madison, celebrated vegetarian cookbook author
***Tales of the Punjab Told by the People, by Flora Annie Webster Steel et al. (1894) Google books, p. 71 – 79.
© 2009 C. Bertelsen