Thursday, 13 October 2016


“Gleaming skin; a plump elongated shape: The eggplant is a vegetable you’d want to caress with your eyes and fingers, even if you didn’t know its luscious flavour.” - Roger Vergé

Eggplant (Solanum melongena), or aubergine, is a species of nightshade grown for its edible fruit. Eggplant is the common name in North America and Australia, but British English uses aubergine. It is known in South Asia, Southeast Asia and South Africa as brinjal. Other common names are melongene, garden egg, or guinea squash. The fruit is widely used in cooking. As a member of the genus Solanum, it is related to the tomato and the potato. It was originally domesticated from the wild nightshade species, the thorn or bitter apple, S. incanum, probably with two independent domestications, one in South Asia and one in East Asia.

The eggplant is a delicate, sub-tropical to tropical perennial often cultivated as a tender or half-hardy annual in temperate climates. The stem is often spiny. The flower is white to purple, with a five-lobed corolla and yellow stamens. The egg-shaped glossy purple fruit has white flesh with a meaty texture. The cut surface of the flesh rapidly turns brown when the fruit is cut open. It grows 40 to 150 cm tall, with large, coarsely lobed leaves that are 10 to 20 cm long and 5 to 10 cm broad. Semi-wild types can grow much larger, to 225 cm with large leaves over 30 cm long and 15 cm broad. On wild plants, the fruit is less than 3 cm in diameter, but much larger in cultivated forms: 30 cm or more in length. Botanically classified as a berry, the fruit contains numerous small, soft seeds that, though edible, taste bitter because they contain nicotinoid alkaloids like the related tobacco.

The plant species originated in cultivation. It has been cultivated in southern and eastern Asia since prehistory. The first known written record of the plant is found in Qimin Yaoshu , an ancient Chinese agricultural treatise completed in 544 AD. The numerous Arabic and North African names for it, along with the lack of the ancient Greek and Roman names, indicate it was introduced throughout the Mediterranean area by the Arabs in the early Middle Ages. A book on agriculture by Ibn Al-Awwam in 12th century Arabic Spain described how to grow aubergines. There are records from later medieval Catalan and Spanish. The aubergine is unrecorded in England until the 16th century. An English botany book in 1597 stated: “This plant groweth in Egypt almost everywhere... bringing forth fruit of the bigness of a great cucumber.... We have had the same in our London gardens, where it hath borne flowers, but the winter approaching before the time of ripening, it perished: nothwithstanding it came to bear fruit of the bigness of a goose egg one extraordinary temperate year... but never to the full ripeness.”

Because of the plant’s relationship with other nightshades, the fruit was at one time believed to be extremely poisonous. The flowers and leaves can be poisonous if consumed in large quantities due to the presence of solanine. The eggplant has a special place in folklore. In 13th century Italian traditional folklore, the eggplant was said to cause insanity. In 19th century Egypt, it was said that insanity was “more common and more violent” when the eggplant is in season in the summer. The Italian name is “melanzana” related to “mela insana” (crazy apple).

Different varieties of the plant produce fruit of different size, shape, and colour, though typically purple. The most widely cultivated varieties/cultivars in Europe and North America today are elongated ovoid, 12–25 cm long and 6–9 cm broad with a dark purple skin. A much wider range of shapes, sizes and colours is grown in India and elsewhere in Asia. Larger varieties weighing up to a kilogram grow in the region between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, while smaller varieties are found elsewhere. Colours vary from white to yellow or green, as well as reddish-purple and dark purple. Some cultivars have a colour gradient—white at the stem; to bright pink, deep purple or even black. Green or purple cultivars with white striping also exist. Chinese varieties are commonly shaped like a narrower, slightly pendulous cucumber, and are sometimes mistakenly called Japanese eggplants in North America. But there are also Asian varieties of Japanese breeding.

The raw fruit can have a somewhat bitter taste, or even an astringent quality, but becomes tender when cooked and develops a rich, complex flavour. The fruit is capable of absorbing large amounts of cooking fats and sauces, making for very rich dishes, but salting reduces the amount of oil absorbed. Many recipes advise salting, rinsing and draining the sliced fruit (a process known as “degorging”) to soften it and to reduce the amount of fat absorbed during cooking, but mainly to remove the bitterness of the earlier cultivars. Some modern varieties (including large purple varieties commonly imported into western Europe) do not need this treatment. Eggplant is used in the cuisines of many countries. Eggplant, due to its texture and bulk, is sometimes used as a meat substitute in vegan and vegetarian cuisine. The fruit flesh is smooth, as in the related tomato. The numerous seeds are soft and edible along with the rest of the fruit. The thin skin is also edible. It is said that eggplant can be cooked in 999 different ways!

In the language of flowers, when a bouquet contains a sprig of flowering eggplant, beware! The giver is saying “I want to marry you for your money!”.

Some eggplant recipes can be found here:

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