There are few vegetables more aesthetically striking than the eggplant (or “aubergine”, for those of you reading in Britain), with its voluptuous gourd and smooth rind of either deep purple or pristine white. But once we’ve finished admiring its sleek façade, many of us are often unsure of what, exactly, to do with the eggplant.
Of course, eggplant is found in a variety of dishes, especially in Indian and Mediterranean cuisine. But it doesn’t have the plate-carrying depth of flavour of its taxonomical cousin, the tomato. Nutritionally speaking it’s also underwhelming. Given its status as a tomato-relative, it has few nutrients of note except manganese and folate, as well as some fibre. Granted, eggplants have a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, but per serving you’re unlikely to get more than two or three percent of your recommended daily intake for any of them.
So what good is eggplant?
Before trying to answer this one, let’s trace the history of the eggplant’s use in world cuisine. For as long as anyone can remember, this perennial tropical and temperate-growing crop has been a staple ingredient in India, where it is still called the “king of vegetables” (although technically it’s a fruit).
From India, it is thought to have travelled throughout the Mediterranean and China, where the first written record of eggplant appeared in a fifth century text.
According to an entry in the University of Arizona’s Master GardenerJournal: “In China, as part of her “bride price”, a woman must have at least 12 eggplant recipes prior to her wedding day. In Turkey, imam bayeldi,a tasty treat of stuffed eggplant simmered in olive oil is said to have made a religious leader swoon in ecstasy. When first introduced in Italy, people believed that anyone who ate the ‘mad apple’ was sure to go insane.”
Part of the trepidation surrounding the humble eggplant came from its relationship to the nightshade family, many of species of which, of course, are rather deadly.
Yes, but what good is it?
The moral of eggplant’s long and somewhat scandalous history is that despite its lack of nutrition and show-stealing flavour, and the superstition that it might kill you or drive you mad, eggplant has become and remained one of the world’s most widely grown and consumed fruit and vegetable products.
But what has encouraged this rise? First of all, eggplant is fairly easy to grow, thriving in all types of soil and climates (its main enemy being frost). This makes it a perfect addition to your backyard garden – and helped it spread around the world.
Just as more importantly, eggplant is amazingly versatile in cooking as a support ingredient. It is tough and bitter when raw (especially young eggplants), but it can be sautéed, baked, roasted, fried or boiled with nearly anything else in the pan, and it is very difficult to overcook.
Eggplants flavours are understated, but the flesh is thick and substantive, making it a great meat-substitute that can be grilled alongside steaks and hamburgers (so go ahead and invite that vegetarian to your BBQ). It is also a good way to add complexity and subtle layers of flavour without overwhelming a dish in the way a tomato might.
Also unique to the eggplant is how its flesh handles moisture. In curries and sauces, eggplant will absorb the fat and oils from the other ingredients, as well as their flavours, lending the dish structural integrity and an overall creamy thickness.
Regarding its preparation, a surprisingly contentious debate has been playing out as to whether or not one should thoroughly salt raw eggplant before cooking. A Los Angeles Times article argues that the common wisdom about salting eggplant is often a myth, and that salting is only necessary prior before frying.
White or purple?
Like other vegetables (have we mentioned it’s technically a fruit?), eggplant cultivars come in many shapes, sizes and colours. The Orient Charm eggplant, for example, is long and slender with a bright purple colour, whereas the Japanese White is the size and colour of a goose egg (and may account for where the “eggplant” name came from).
Asian varieties tend to be paler, smaller and sweeter than the plump, purple eggplants associated with Mediterranean cuisines. Indeed, they are often grilled or boiled whole instead of chopped.
Many of the commonly recognised large, gourde-shaped cultivars come from the esculentum variety. These are known for their bitterness (especially when young).
But the best way to understand the various types of eggplant is to simply ask the grower. As eggplants are relatively easy to grow in temperate climates, they are a favourite at local farmers’ markets and grocers. They’ll likely have the best knowledge of the flavour profile of their product.
The only thing that remains is to try it in your cooking! These are a few excellent eggplant-based recipes from around the web:
Eggplant parm (Food & Wine)
Veal and eggplant ragu with pappardelle (Good Food)
North Indian eggplant bhurtha (AllRecipes.com)
Messy eggplant burger (The Tasty K)
Ethiopian eggplant stew (Vegan Dad)[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]