With its taught, glossy skin and regal, deep purple colour, this is surely one of the most beautiful vegetables around. (Although, to be pedantic, it’s a fruit, which puts it in competition with figs…)
It is a member of the Nightshade family, as in Deadly, along with potatoes tomatoes, peppers, chillies and tobacco. It is the only major vegetable in the Nightshade family to come from the Old World. (The tomato was slow to catch on in Europe when it was introduced from South America due to its resemblance to Deadly Nightshade.)
It is thought to have been first cultivated in India, and was brought to Europe, via Spain, and North Africa by Arab traders. It was appearing on Italian dinner plates by the 15th century, and French ones 300 years later.
Its name gives away its history: the French ‘aubergine’ is derived from the Catalan ‘albergínia’, which comes from the Arabic ‘al-bãdhinjãn’, which is directly from the Persian, ‘bâdinjân’. ‘Eggplant’ is a silly name used in America and elsewhere, deriving from the fact that some varieties look like white hen eggs, so of far lesser interest to etymologists.
The original wild aubergines were pea-sized and extremely bitter. Like its fellow Nightshades it stores up bitter alkaloids to deter animals from eating its fruit and digesting the life out of its seeds. Over the years aubergines have been bred to be larger and less bitter. Salting your chopped aubergine in advance of cooking it is usually no longer necessary. In any case, the salt does not draw out much bitter moisture but rather reduces your perception of bitterness (as salt always does).
Due to its tropical origins, the aubergine finds the fridge too cold and is happier being stored in a cool room.
These days it is cooked all over the world in many different ways. If you haven’t yet, make sure you try Moussaka (from the Balkans, Turkey and Greece), Melanzane alla Parmigiana (from Italy) and Caponata (from Sicily). The flesh is full of air pockets which collapse on cooking and absorb whatever juices and flavours are around. The result is something delicious, rich and either meaty or creamy in consistency. Yum. If you know other great aubergine recipes, please send them to me.
Aubergine is a source of potassium, an essential mineral for our bodies which apparently many of us don’t get enough of. So make some soup…