by Sarah West
I have to admit that the eggplant has maintained an air of mystery in my life. I grew up without eating a single one (not a family favorite), and nothing about the spongy, thick-skinned, midnight-purple football of a vegetable made any sense to me as a young cook. Beyond an oil-soaked eggplant Parmesan here and there, I had little exposure to this perplexing produce-aisle standard.
Seed catalogs sparked in me the first authentic eggplant curiosity—this was a vegetable that, in heirloom collections, came in alluring variety: green or yellow grape-sized fruits to slender, pendulous purple cucumbers to white and lavender marbled tear-drops, bright red tomato-shaped fruits to pure white, egg-shaped fruits. Hence, the name: once upon a time, someone saw this sort of round, paper white fruit and said: eggplant.
Hailing from a native range that included northeast India to Burma, northern Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and southern China, eggplants have long exhibited wide variation of colors, shapes and sizes, which in turn reflect the tastes and preferences of their cultivators.
The eggplant went to Persia through ancient trade routes, and from there, to eastern Africa and eventually (post-Roman empire) Mediterranean Europe via Muslim expansion. As a vegetable, eggplant was slow to catch on, especially in northern regions, where it was believed to harbor powers ranging from the aphrodisiac to the psychotic. The word for eggplant in Italy maintains some of this old suspicion: melanzana, or ‘mad apple.’
Following western exploration to the Americas, the eggplant met for the first time its cousin the tomato, both members of the botanical family, solanaceae. The two were united again back in the Old Country, and in the capable hands of southern Italian and Spanish cooks, were masterfully paired—tomato’s sweet acidity flavoring silky, rich eggplant, a combination that now stands as a Mediterranean classic.
My first attraction to eggplant was visual, and, indeed, as eggplant spread to farther regions of the globe, eating the unusual fruits was not always the inheritor’s first impulse. Like tomatoes, eggplants are closely related to poisonous and narcotic species of nightshade, bearing much resemblance and residual misgivings. In some of the first seed catalogs, such as France’s 1760 edition from Vilmorin, they were listed solely as ornamental annuals.
Though we think of it as a vegetable, eggplant fruit is, by botanical definition, a berry. It has none of the sweetly sour, fresh-eating characteristics of culinary berries, but its seeds are embedded in a single, fleshy ovary, and therefore it is more a berry than strawberries or raspberries.
As cooks, however, we concede that raw eggplant holds little appeal (many still believe it is poisonous raw, a holdover from centuries of nightshade associations), and for eggplant to enthrall us, we must embrace its unctuous qualities. When fresh eggplant is cooked well, flesh that was spongy and bitter melts into sweet, silky, umami-rich softness that easily harmonizes with surrounding flavors.
The Persians, early adopters of eggplants, preferred to roast them whole in the ashes of a wood fire, later flavoring the flesh with oil, vinegar, and spice. Roasting a whole eggplant in this way helps to mitigate one problem with grilling or roasting the spongy fruits in slices: unless sufficiently oiled, their flesh tends to dry on the surface before it cooks through. Steaming the flesh inside its own skin results in superb texture and lighter flavor, as it is not soaked through with oil. Contemporary eggplant enthusiast, chef Yotam Ottolenghi, recommends an updated version of this Persian preparation in his cookbook, Plenty, roasting them directly on the low flame of a gas stove burner.
Though much of eggplant’s low ratings among the general populous may be rooted in historical misunderstanding, it is more likely a victim of poor selection and kitchen technique. The more slender, Asian varieties usually have thinner skin and sweeter flesh than the ubiquitous globe-shaped varieties; experimenting with different types may be the key eggplant-hater conversion.
All eggplants do not keep well once harvested. Like tomatoes, they dislike cold storage, which can damage their delicate flavor and fine texture. On the countertop, they age quickly, maintaining peak condition for only a few days. Eggplants picked while their skin is shiny and their flesh firm will taste sweeter and keep a less watery texture when cooked soon after harvest.
In the kitchen, we must embrace eggplant’s idiosyncrasies. They absorb fats copiously, so make sure the pan is good and hot before adding sliced eggplant to a sauté in order to protect the inside with a good sear (if you wish to avoid preparing oil sponges). Utilize their talent of sopping up flavor to sop up complementary, balancing flavors: acidity from lemon juice or tomatoes, warm spice blends, garlic, ginger, or tangy miso. Oiled and roasted eggplant turns into a vegetable version of butter, making it a great base for flavored spreads (start with babaganoush, then think outside the box).
Or take a few on the trail and, like an ancient Persian, throw them in your waning campfire to scoop smoky spoonfuls sprinkled in salt for a no-fuss meal, tasting their full, unadorned flavor: concentrated, caramelized richness coated in artichoke-like sweetness and something unmistakably eggplant.