Originally created 01/08/97

Eggplant - the fried and the prejudice

You say you have an eggplant problem? It's spongy, bitter and bland, and you just don't know what to do with it?

If so, you're not alone. For more than 1,000 years, as eggplant spread west from India, it was often viewed with puzzlement, suspicion and outright distaste. But like Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, eggplant is rich and improves on acquaintance.

We went through the discovery process in my own family. A garden book recommended eggplant for our climate, so my mother planted some in the back yard. How right the book was. The eggplants flourished, and the next spring more of them popped up all over the garden like weeds. There were so many I remember my father demonstrating his old college football skills by kicking one over the back fence.

It would have been a bonanza except that, to my mother's grief, she couldn't get us to eat eggplant the only way she could think of cooking it. Fried eggplant was just too bitter for us. But then she discovered a recipe for ratatouille, a stew of eggplant with tomatoes, onions and sweet peppers, and we learned to appreciate its plush, sophisticated flavor.

Eggplant's original home was Southeast Asia, where the greatest number of eggplant varieties are still grown. Recently we've been seeing some tiny white and green Thai eggplant varieties in our supermarkets. The Thais even cook some yellow-skinned wild cousins of eggplant.

The bitterness in eggplant's flavor is valued in Southeast Asia, and the tiny ones are used in cooking to give a bitter accent to soups and curries. As eggplant spread west, though, bitterness proved an obstacle to acceptance. It was the larger, sweeter varieties that spread, and even they had a hard time of it.

The spongy, corpselike look of eggplant flesh didn't help its popularity either, nor did the fact that everybody could tell at a glance that it's a member of the nightshade family. (Wherever eggplant spread in Central and West Africa, people called it by the same name as the local species of nightshade.) It was common knowledge everywhere that many nightshades are poisonous.

So when eggplant reached the Middle East 1,000 years ago, it's not surprising that the most famous physicians of the Middle Ages warned against it. Avicenna claimed it caused melancholia, and Rhazes cautioned that it inflamed the blood and caused pustules in the mouth. It was widely believed to cause cancer, insanity and freckles.

By the time it reached Italy, it was being blamed for all sorts of things. The 16th century Italian physician Castore Durante wrote that eating too much eggplant caused melancholy humors, cancer, leprosy, headaches, hardening of the liver and spleen and long fevers ... and was bad for the complexion, possibly that freckle story again.

But eggplant wouldn't have reached Europe at all if there hadn't been a lot of people along the way who agreed with the 10th century Syrian poet Kushajam: "The doctor makes ignorant fun of me for liking eggplant, but I will not give it up. Its flavor is like the saliva generously exchanged by lovers in kissing." (And you thought there were no racy poems about eggplant.)

It all depended on whether there were any good recipes for eggplant. Back when Durante was blaming eggplant for everything under the sun, for example, Italian cooks knew only a few boring ways to prepare it. Mostly they boiled it and served it with salt, pepper and oil, the same way they served mushrooms. If there'd been any eggplant parmigiana in those days, the doc might have sung a different tune.

Although eggplant seems a cooking challenge to a lot of people, it's actually extremely versatile and has been cooked in myriad ways. In ancient India, eggplant was usually cut up and stewed along with other vegetables or cooked whole until soft and pureed. The Middle East took up the puree idea, usually exploiting eggplant's affinity for nut flavors. The ancestor of today's "baba ghannouj" was flavored with ground walnuts instead of "tahineh."

It seems to have been in the Middle East that cooks first systematically cultivated the sweet, smoky flavor of fried eggplant, salting the slices first to reduce the bitterness and moisture level. No vegetable has as concentrated a flavor as eggplant fried good and brown, and it's no coincidence that Cairo street merchants announce eggplants for sale by crying, "Ya 'arus el-qaleyya" (the bride of the frying pan).

Moorish Spain provides the first recipes for stuffed eggplant. One of them calls for eggplant to be stuffed with meat and, in the same dish, the reverse: pieces of stewed eggplant covered with ground meat.

The cuisine of the Ottoman Empire was obsessed with making stuffed vegetables ("dolmas"). Today, in Turkey and adjoining countries, people often preserve their summer crop by hollowing the eggplants, using what they've removed to make eggplant purees like "hunkar begendi" for immediate use. Then they hang the eggplant shells from clotheslines to dry, so they're ready for instant stuffing all year long.

Provence has given us ratatouille, but it's in Turkey and Italy that eggplant has most memorably teamed up with its New World cousins of the nightshade family, peppers and tomatoes. There are eggplant Parmigiana, where eggplant stands in for lasagna in a baked pasta dish, and all the moussaka-type stews of the Middle East.

But purely sweet flavors, even from root vegetables such as carrots, don't seem to fit its flavor profile. In fact, "to candy an eggplant" (candire un petonciano) is a proverbial Italian way of describing an utterly ridiculous project.

On the other hand, in Greece they make an eggplant jam, "gliki melitzanis." You may say it's ridiculous, but it goes to show that, like Mr. Darcy, eggplant is capable of surprising things when the motivation is there.


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