Ode to the Ever-Adaptable Eggplant

Ratatouille, anyone?

The following is an excerpt from Whole Foods Companion: A Guide for Adventurous Cooks, Curious Shoppers, and Lovers of Natural Foods by Dianne Onstad. It has been adapted for the Web.

Eggplant (Solanum melongena, var. esculentum)
Also Known As: Aubergine, Guinea Squash

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 flavor.

—Roger Vergé

 

How can people say they don’t eat eggplant when
God loves the color and the French love the name?
I don’t understand.

—Jeff Smith, the Frugal Gourmet

The name Solanum melongena, which means “soothing mad apple,” is a result of the eggplant’s unwarranted reputation for inducing instant insanity in the unwary eater. According to available records, the early types of eggplant had small ovoid white fruits resembling eggs, which accounts for its English name.

General Information

Botanists believe the original eggplant blossomed somewhere in south-central Asia—possibly India—where its peculiar-looking fruits, bitter taste, and nasty thorns did little to recommend it. Nonetheless, some hardy soul eventually domesticated it, and by the third century a.d. the Chinese were gingerly debating its dietary potential. Reaching Europe in the twelfth century by way of Arab merchant caravans, the eggplant was eventually introduced to the United States by Thomas Jefferson, who experimented with the seeds and cuttings of many foreign plants. Until the twentieth century, Americans valued the eggplant more as an ornament or table decoration than as a flavorful, versatile food. This was a result in part of its reputation in Europe, where eating it was suspected to cause madness, not to mention leprosy, cancer, and bad breath. The large berries vary in shape from round to oblong and in color from white to purple, with some even striped. The most common eggplant variety sold in the United States is large and purple with a shiny, patent-leather-like skin, developed because it showed bruise marks less and grew to a larger size. Increasingly, you will find other varieties, including miniature eggplants, that come in a range of
shapes and colors. These small eggplants are generally sweeter and more tender than their larger counterparts; they also have thinner skins and contain fewer seeds.

Buying Tips

Look for a well-rounded, symmetrical eggplant with a satin-smooth, uniformly colored skin; tan patches, scars, or bruises on the skin indicate decay, which will appear as discolorations in the flesh beneath. Any with wrinkled or flabby-looking skin will probably be bitter. Those that are light for their size have fewer seeds. A mature eggplant may be as long as twelve inches or as small as two inches; medium-sized specimens, three to six inches in diameter, are likely to be young, sweet, and tender, while oversized specimens may be tough, seedy, and bitter. Store eggplant whole in a cool room or in the refrigerator, where it will keep for about a week.

Lore & Legend

At about the same time that Gerard was lamenting the eggplant’s aphrodisiac effect in England, the concubine Rada-Hera was concocting the most famous of aphrodisiac eggplant dishes for her husband, the legendary Turkish bey Mustaph Mehere—the same who weighed 400 pounds and took 170 wives and innumerable concubines over his 123-year life span (1488–1611). Rada-Hera (his second wife) made the dish so well that she was the only wife he never discarded, mainly because she kept the recipe secret and Mustaph believed that the purée was the key to his virility and longevity. So while all Mustaph’s other wives were discarded when they turned twenty, Rada-Hera had free run of the palace until she died a natural death in 1571.

Culinary Uses

Eggplants have such a pleasing color and shape that they are almost as enjoyable just to look at as they are to eat.

Astonishingly adaptable, they can be fried, boiled, baked, stuffed, or sautéed; they are excellent served individually as a main dish, as an appetizer, or as part of a larger cast of ingredients. The beautiful skin is edible and does not need to be removed. A traditional substitute for meat in Middle Eastern cooking, they are quite spongy and soak up whatever oils or juices they are cooked in. Eggplant is used for a number of national dishes, including Turkey’s imam biyaldi, eggplant simmered in olive oil for several hours; France’s ratatouille, a stew of onions, garlic, zucchini, spices, and chopped eggplant; and Italy’s caponata, pickled eggplant.

Health Benefits

pH 4.75–5.50. Since eggplant is more than 90 percent water, it is low in calories. It helps clear stagnant blood by dissolving the congealed blood and accumulations such as tumors, and it has a hemostatic action (reduces bleeding). Eggplant is a rich source of bioflavonoids, which renew arteries and prevent strokes and other hemorrhages. As it has a soothing and stabilizing effect on the nervous system and a protective action on arteries damaged by cholesterol, and it even helps to prevent certain cancers, eggplant has a strong future. However, eggplant is part of the nightshade family.

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