Food of the Week: Eggplant
Posted on July 16, 2012
The eggplant, aubergine, melongene, brinjal or guinea squash (Solanum melongena) is a plant of the family Solanaceae (also known as the nightshades) and genus Solanum. It bears a fruit of the same name, commonly used in cooking. As a nightshade, it is closely related to the tomato and potato. It is native to India.
It is a delicate perennial often cultivated as an annual. It grows 40 to 150 cm (16 to 57 in) tall, with large coarsely lobed leaves that are 10 to 20 cm (4–8 in) long and 5 to 10 cm (2–4 in) broad. Semi wild types can grow much larger, to 225 cm (7 ft) with large leaves over 30 cm (12 in) long and 15 cm (6 in) broad. The stem is often spiny. The flowers are white to purple, with a five-lobed corolla and yellow stamens. The fruit is fleshy, has a meaty texture, and is less than 3 cm (1.2 in) in diameter on wild plants, but much larger in cultivated forms.
The fruit is botanically classified as a berry and contains numerous small, soft seeds which are edible, but have a bitter taste because they contain nicotinoid alkaloids; this is unsurprising as it is a close relative of tobacco.
The plant is native to the Indian subcontinent. It has been cultivated in southern and eastern Asia since prehistory, but appears to have become known to the Western world no earlier than ca. 1500. The first known written record of the plant is found in Qí mín yào shù, an ancient Chinese agricultural treatise completed in 544. The numerousArabic and North African names for it, along with the lack of the ancient Greek and Roman names, indicate it was introduced throughout the Mediterranean area by the Arabs in the earlyMiddle Ages. The scientific name Solanum melongena is derived from a 16th century Arabic term for one variety.
The name aubergine is from the French, a diminutive of auberge, variant of alberge ‘a kind of peach’ or from the Spanish alberchigo, alverchiga, ‘an apricocke’ (Minsheu 1623). It may be also be derived from Catalan albergínia, from Arabic al-baðinjān from Persian bâdenjân, fromSanskrit vātiga-gama).
Aubergine is also the name of the purple color resembling that of the fruit and is a commonly known color scheme applied to articles as diverse as cloth or bathroom suites.
The popular name eggplant is used in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. It derives from the fruits of some 18th century European cultivars which were yellow or white and resembled goose or hen’s eggs.
In Indian, South African, Malaysian and Singaporean English, the fruit is called brinjal, being derived directly from the Portuguese beringela. A less common British English word is melongene, which is also from French (derived) from Italian “melanzana” from Greek “μελιτζάνα”. In the Caribbean Trinidad, it also goes by “meloongen” from melongene.
Because of the plant’s relationship with the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, the fruit was at one time believed to be extremely poisonous.
Different varieties of the plant produce fruit of different size, shape and color, though typically purple. There are even orange varieties.
The most widely cultivated varieties (cultivars) in Europeand North America today are elongated ovoid, 12–25 cm long (4½ to 9 in) and 6–9 cm broad (2 to 4 in) in a dark purple skin.
A much wider range of shapes, sizes and colors is grown in India and elsewhere in Asia. Larger varieties weighing up to a kilogram (2.2 pounds) grow in the region between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, while smaller varieties are found elsewhere. Colors vary from white to yellow or green as well as reddish-purple and dark purple. Some cultivars have a color gradient, from white at the stem to bright pink to deep purple or even black. Green or purple cultivars in white striping also exist. Chinese varieties are commonly shaped like a narrower, slightly pendulous cucumber, and were sometimes called Japanese eggplants in North America.
Oval or elongated oval-shaped and black-skinned cultivars include Harris Special Hibush, Burpee Hybrid, Black Magic, Classic, Dusky, and Black Beauty. Slim cultivars in purple-black skin include Little Fingers, Ichiban, Pingtung Long, and Tycoon; in green skin Louisiana Long Green and Thai (Long) Green; in white skin Dourga. Traditional, white-skinned, egg-shaped cultivars include Casper and Easter Egg. Bicolored cultivars with color gradient include Rosa Bianca, Violetta di Firenze, Bianca Smufata di Rosa (heirloom), and Prosperosa (heirloom). Bicolored cultivars with striping include Listada de Gandia and Udumalapet. In some parts of India, miniature varieties (most commonly called vengan) are popular. A particular variety of green brinjal known as Matti Gulla is grown in Matti, a village of the Udupi district in Karnataka state.
The raw fruit can have a somewhat bitter taste, but becomes tender when cooked and develops a rich, complex flavor. Many recipes advise salting, rinsing and draining of the sliced fruit (known as “degorging”), to soften it and to reduce the amount of fat absorbed during cooking, but mainly to remove the bitterness of the earlier cultivars. Some modern varieties – including large, purple varieties commonly imported into western Europe – do not need this treatment. The fruit is capable of absorbing large amounts of cooking fats and sauces, making for very rich dishes, but salting reduces the amount of oil absorbed. The fruit flesh is smooth; as in the related tomato, the numerous seeds are soft and edible along with the rest of the fruit. The thin skin is also edible.
The plant is used in the cuisine of many countries. It is often stewed, as in the French ratatouille, or deep fried as in the Italian parmigiana di melanzane, the Turkish karnıyarık or Turkish and Greekmusakka/moussaka, and Middle-Eastern and South Asian dishes. Eggplants can also be battered before deep-frying and served with a sauce made of tahini and tamarind. In Iranian cuisine, it can be blended with whey as kashk e-bademjan, tomatoes as mirza ghasemi or made into stew askhoresh-e-bademjan. It can be sliced and deep-fried, then served with plain yogurt, (optionally) topped with a tomato and garlic sauce, such as in the Turkish dish patlıcan kızartması (meaning: fried aubergines) or without yogurt as in patlıcan şakşuka. Perhaps the best-known Turkish eggplant dishes are İmam bayıldı (vegetarian) and Karnıyarık (with minced meat).
It may also be roasted in its skin until charred, so the pulp can be removed and blended with other ingredients, such as lemon, tahini, and garlic, as in the Middle Eastern baba ghanoush and the similar Greek melitzanosalata. Grilled, mashed and mixed with onions, tomatoes and spices make the Indian dish baingan ka Bhartha or gojju, similar to salată de vinete in Romania, while a mix of roasted eggplant, roasted red peppers, chopped onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, carrots, celery and spices is called zacuscă in Romania or ajvar in Croatia and the Balkans. A simpler version of the dish, Begun-Pora (eggplant-charred or burnt), is popular in the east Indian state of Bengal and Bangladesh where the charred pulp is mixed with raw chopped onions, green chillies, salt and mustard oil. A Catalan dish called Escalivada calls for strips of roasted aubergine, sweet pepper, onion and tomato.
The fruit can also be hollowed out and tuffed with meat, rice, or other fillings and then baked. In theCaucasus, for example, it is fried and stuffed with walnut paste to make nigvziani badrijani. It can also be found in Chinese cuisine, braised (紅燒茄子), stewed (魚香茄子), steamed (凉拌茄子), or stuffed (釀茄子).
As a native plant, it is widely used in Indian cuisine, for example in sambhar, dalma (a dal preparation with vegetables, native to Orissa),chutney, curry, and achaar. Owing to its versatile nature and wide use in both everyday and festive Indian food, it is often described (under the name brinjal) as the “King of Vegetables”. In one dish, brinjal is stuffed with ground coconut, peanuts, and masala, and then cooked in oil.