No, eggplants probably didn’t march with the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great, although he certainly might have eaten some as he brushed up against what is now western India. The fact that most of the names for eggplant come not from ancient Greek or Latin, but rather from Sanskrit or Arabic, attest to the spread of this fruit (yes, botanists consider eggplant a fruit) by the Arabs.
Called melitzana in Greek, the word a derivation from the Arabic badhinjan, the eggplant quickly embedded itself in Greek cuisine. Where would Greek cuisine be without moussaka, itself a variation on an Arab dish called musakhkhan? According to food historian Clifford A. Wright, musakhkhan means “something that is heated.” Although the two dishes don’t resemble each other in execution, the name stuck.
As for the original moussaka recipe, who knows how and when that happened? But maybe the first written recipe for moussaka appeared in a thirteenth-century Baghdad cookery book:
Maghmuma or Muqatta’a
Cut fat meat small. Slice the tail thin and chop up small.* Take onions and eggplant, peel, half-boil, and also cut up small: these may, however, be peeled and cut up into the meat- pot, and not be boiled separately. Make a layer of the tail at the bottom of the pan, then put on top of it a layer of meat: drop in fine-ground seasonings, dry coriander, cumin, caraway, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and salt. On top of the meat put a layer of eggplant and onion: repeat, until only about four or five fingers’ space remain in the pot. Sprinkle over each layer the ground seasonings as required. Mix best vinegar with a little water and a trifle of saffron, and add to the pan so as to lie to a depth of two or three fingers on top of the meat and other ingredients. Leave to settle over the fire: then remove. (From A. J. Arberry, “A Baghdad Cookery Book.” In: Medieval Arab Cookery, by Maxime Rodinson, A. J. Arberry, and Charles Perry, p. 47.)
In Greece, Alexander or no Alexander, eggplant thrived in a cuisine marked by migrations. As one Greek culinary expert, Diane Kochilas, says, and we all sense and — yes — know, “The more I tried to delve into the origins of the region’s food and lore, the more I became entangled in the web of different peoples who at times have inhabited this fertile, mountainous place, many, in their way, leaving a mark on her culinary traditions.”
Tracing the migratory patterns of food doesn’t resemble the study of migratory birds; you can’t attached a tag to a skinny leg and watch that leg fly off.
An interesting question: just how much has war affected human history in the kitchen? Without war and conquest, what would the world be like culinarily?
Greek cooks invented a multitude of recipes for eggplant, which originally graced Greek kitchens in the white form found today on Santorini Island, where cooks know this: “Lovers of good cuisine should be aware that only in Santorini can one sample this unique delicacy.”
Not exactly — the same plant grows in Africa …
Greek Roasted Eggplant with Feta Cheese and Herbs
3 medium or large eggplants
1 lb. feta cheese, crumbled
½ cup chopped fresh mint
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Get your grill going. When it is ready, cook the eggplants for about 20 minutes, until charred and soft. Remove from grill and cut in half.
Scoop the flesh out of the grilled eggplants, carefully as not to rip the skin. Put the eggplant flesh into a bowl, mash it with a fork, then add the crumbled feta, the herbs, and the oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Mix lightly but well.
Stuff the eggplant skins with the cheese mixture and return the eggplants to the grill for about 5 minutes, to warm.
Garnish with a few coriander sprigs and serve immediately with a green salad.
*Note: Many cultures in the Middle East consider sheep-tail fat a delicacy.
© 2009 C. Bertelsen