Acceptance in America came after Italian, Asian influence
Ever wonder how the eggplant was named? This berry (yes, botanically it’s a berry) received its English name because the first known eggplants were small, white and oval and looked much like goose eggs.
Eggplant probably originated wild in Africa, but was first cultivated in India more than 4,000 years ago. Multiple references to it are found in Chinese literature, the earliest of which is in the Tong Yue, dated to 59 BCE.
The Moors brought this strange new food to northern Africa, and then to Spain in the eighth century. It eventually found its way to Italy in the 14th century. Widely consumed in the Middle East, Italy, Greece and southern Spain, the eggplant gained a reputation as an aphrodisiac, and was often referred to as the “apple of love.”
During the 16th century, German gardeners were developing new European eggplant varieties, but at the same time, the English, Dutch, Portuguese and French were convinced that this member of the nightshade family was poisonous and they dubbed it the “mad apple.” Sometime in the 1600s, Louis XIV bravely served and ate one.
The French king certainly survived his experiment. But even though eggplant was given this fair culinary shake, it received the unflattering review that it was “fruits as large as pears, but with bad qualities.” Almost every northern European, therefore, still refused to consume it, claiming that it caused fever, epilepsy and insanity, and gardeners in the skeptical countries grew it only for ornamental value.
Spanish explorers grew and cooked eggplant in North America during their Age of Exploration, and there is evidence that it crossed the Atlantic with the slave trade.
Thomas Jefferson, however, gets kudos for popularizing the still-curious plant in the United States in the 1800s. And as in 17th-century northern Europe, eggplant was slow to gain acceptance as a food, again, because it was in the nightshade family.
It was not until the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Chinese and Italian immigrants brought their skills in eggplant preparation, that Americans felt safe eating eggplant.
The eggplant (Solanum melongena) loves warm weather and is closely related to the tomato, potato and peppers. It is classified by shape into five basic groups: globe, elongated or cylindrical, egg-shaped, specialty and pea eggplants. Each category features eggplants in varying colors and sizes.
Most of today’s eggplant varieties have been bred to reduce bitterness. But if you want to assure sweetness, peel them before you cook them. Then there’s the old standby of salting cut eggplant, letting it sit for an hour, and drying it thoroughly with paper towels. You can also up the odds of having a sweet eggplant by purchasing small ones.
Although there’s an old wives’ tale that differences in the blossom end indicate whether an eggplant is male (sweet) or female (bitter), this variation is actually due to incomplete pollination or overmaturity, not gender. But so-called male eggplants, which are smaller and have fewer seeds, are usually sweeter.
To “sex” an eggplant, look at the indentation at the bottom. If it’s shallow and round, it’s a male. Female indentations are deep and shaped like a dash.
The spongy eggplant is notorious for soaking up cooking oils. And since it’s 92 percent water, instead of browning, it often steams its own juices, resulting in a slimy mess. To reduce greasiness and texture problems, it is important to heat the oil as hot as possible before adding eggplant to the pot.
You can also parboil slices for one minute or microwave on high for a few minutes and thoroughly drain and pat dry with paper towels.
The above-mentioned salting process also helps with texture.
If you’re concerned about raw slices turning brown, keep them in salt water until ready to use or brush with lemon juice. And aluminum cookware does tend to discolor eggplant.
The humble eggplant absorbs a wide range of flavors and is one of the most versatile fruits around. We also know that it contains the antioxidant nasumin, is rich in fiber, and has lots of vitamins B1 and B6, as well as modest amounts of magnesium, niacin and folic acid. And as for the love apple claim, well, that certainly has not been proven. But, it is highly likely that once you master the tricks of properly preparing eggplant you will receive tons of adoration.