The apple of insanity
Eggplants are part of the solanaceae family, a nightshade, and are a perennial, self-pollinating plant that grows on vines. The original plants were said to come from the Indo-Burma region where they were then domesticated from wild. Eggplants were readily adopted into China and Japan and you can see their history with references to the fruit both in Sanskrit and ancient Chinese texts. From Asia they were brought to the Middle East and Africa, where they were also quickly absorbed into the cooking, and from there they travelled west along the silk route to Europe.
Botanically, eggplants are classified as a berry, another misunderstood fruit that gets used as a vegetable. Like tomatoes, from the same family and introduced to Europe around the same time, eggplants were initially grown as an ornamental fruit due to some initial suspicion regarding its eatable nature. When you taste a bitter eggplant, though, it’s easy to understand people’s wariness.
Known as brinjal in India and Sri Lankan and melanzane in Italian, the root of the word in Latin is mala insana, meaning ‘apple of insanity’ or ‘mad apple’. It’s interesting to note that the word ‘apple’ was historically used as a descriptor, much like we use the word ‘fruit’ today. The word ‘eggplant’ was thought to have come from a particular variety of the fruit that was small and elliptical. And white. Like an egg.
Walk into a supermarket in Australia and you would be forgiven for thinking that eggplants come as one type and colour with the only variation being size. If you’re lucky, you may stumble upon a Japanese, or finger, eggplant, but again, same colour, and although this variety can have thinner skins and fewer seeds, they behave and taste much the same. Like many fruit and vegetables, diversity in Australia becomes a problem unless you go hunting further than your local supermarket.
Once you start to explore the world of eggplants, you may become overwhelmed. The array is astounding with colours that cover the whole spectrum configured in various sizes and shapes and assumedly this variety applies to flavour, too. A common categorisation is done by breaking down the fruit into groups based on appearance: globe, egg-shaped, short, long and pea-shaped.
The ubiquitous variety is globe-shaped with a glossy dark purple, almost black, skin and is usually just called eggplant as opposed to being named for the specific varietal. We do have quite a few Italian types, one of which is streaky light purple and white with a softer, less dense flesh. Another one that is easy to find is the pea eggplant, it comes as a cluster and looks like an uncooked pea, only slightly bigger, and is used a lot in Thai cooking. It has a bitter burst that works perfectly with the strong flavours of their rich, hot, sweet and spicy curries.
One fruit, many cultures
The popularity of the eggplant is clearly evident in its regular appearances in ‘classic’ recipes from around the world. Moussaka is found in Greece and at its simplest involves layers of eggplant and lamb mince; variations are made without meat, with potato, or with béchamel sauce. There’s also a Turkish version that is similar but without layers, as well as versions found in Serbia and Macedonia. Another classic is the Sicilian dish caponata, made using celery, eggplant and capers, seasoned so the end result is slightly sweet and vinegary. Along the same lines there’s French ratatouille, eggplant cooked with a combination of tomato, capsicum and zucchini. Recently, I had one of the best falafels of my life in the Marais in Paris – I think it was the addition of fried eggplant that really tipped it over the edge.
Go to the Middle East and you’ll find baba ganoush, a delicious smoky dip made using charred eggplant, and zaalouk, a popular Moroccan side dish that is a cooked salad made with tomato and laden with spices. Head to Asia and it appears everywhere – India and Sri Lanka use the fruit in curries, pickles and sambols; in China you’ll find the yum cha favourite of eggplant stuffed with prawn, often fried and then braised; and in Japan, there’s nasu dengaku – one of my favourites – a simple refined dish of eggplant and miso. I also believe eggplant is a strong contender for best vegetable to tempura.
Taming the beast
Eggplants are a temperamental beast, absorbing flavours and fat like a sponge, which is both its star appeal and can be its greatest downfall. At their best they have a beautiful soft texture that is creamy and delicate; mistreated, they can be bitter, texturally dubious and served sodden with oil. Salting eggplants can be a good technique to help avoid this, originally done as a measure to draw out excessive bitterness, although modern cultivators have predominately had this bred out of them. The salt also extracts moisture which in turn will help it absorb less oil.
I have had many eggplant experiences, the most curious being when I tested, and unfortunately served, a classic Italian dessert recipe involving eggplant with chocolate and candied fruit. I would say be wary of this. There is another Italian classic my mum used to make, melanzane parmigiana, which is eggplant at its finest – simply cooked, cheesy and satisfying with the acidity of tomato balancing and uniting the dish.
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Photography by Sharyn Cairns. Styling by Deborah Kaloper. Food preparation by Emma Warren. Creative concept by Lou Fay.
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