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Eggplant: A Botanical Identity Crisis

FOOD FOR THOUGHT - January 23, 2008 - Mark R. Vogel
 [email protected] - Mark’s Archive

See Also: Eggplant Description & FactsEggplant TriviaQuotes  -  Cooking Tips


If an eggplant went to a plant psychologist for some veggio-therapy, it’s unlikely that the managed care company would authorize enough sessions to cure the addled little bugger.  It suffers from an identity crisis that is quite, ahem, deep-rooted.  Eggplants don’t know what they are, what their name is, or what they do.

     To begin, eggplants are not vegetables but fruits and to take it one step further, a berry to be exact.  Although we’ve informally come to define berries as round little fruits that grow in clusters on bushes or small plants, there is a specific botanical definition.  A berry is a type of fleshy, indehiscent, (not sprouting open when ripe), fruit that develops from the ovary wall of the plant flower.  Technically eggplants, (as well as tomatoes, bananas, chile peppers and avocados) are all berries, and thus fruits. 

Next, what do we call this berry?  Eggplant?  They have nothing to do with eggs other than their oblong shape which spurred their ovular name.  But they’ve also been known by many other terms.  Around the time the name eggplant found its way into the vernacular, so did the name “aubergine.” Eggplant became popular in America while the French, British and other Europeans favored the term aubergine.  Aubergine derives from a Sanskrit (ancient Indian language), word meaning “to cure wind-disorder,” (since eggplants were once thought to alleviate flatulence).  The Sanskrit word “vatinganah” was successively morphed to “badingan” by the Persians, “al-badinjan” by the Arabs, “alberengena” by the Spanish, and finally aubergine by the French.  Imagine if you went through life being known as Bob, then Mary, and then Ralph.

     Finally, what do eggplants do? As stated, ancient cultures ascribed them with carminative properties.  Medieval Europeans thought they were an aphrodisiac.  Sixteenth century Europeans thought they would cause insanity.  Some believed the eggplant to be poisonous, (inevitably due to it being a member of the nightshade family).  Others thought their only practical use was as ornaments.  And you want to hear something really scary?  As we move into the modern world of supposedly more reality-based science, there is STILL some disagreement as to the eggplant’s properties.


     Case in point:  Should you or should you not salt eggplants before using them?  The rationale behind salting is that salt reduces bitterness and improves texture.  There are proponents in both camps but the facts are this:  Bitterness in eggplants is caused by certain alkaloids.  Even after salting, most of these alkaloids remain.  What the salt actually does is obscure our taste sensation of the bitter elements.  So salt does reduce bitterness but only via smoke and mirrors.  Salt will change the eggplant’s texture however.  Eggplants have a spongy texture highlighted by numerous air sacs around the cells.  Salt will draw out some fluid, thus collapsing the cells upon themselves.  One reason you may want to do this is when sautéing eggplant in oil.  Its spongy texture will absorb much of the oil.  Post-salted eggplant will absorb much less.  Or you can simply coat them with a breading before sautéing or frying to inhibit excessive oil assimilation.

     There is even debate about how bitter eggplants are to begin with.  Like any biological product, certain flavor nuances may vary with the exact species of plant, as well as where and how it’s grown.  Moreover, there is the variability in peoples’ palates.  Bitterness is one of the basic flavor elements that our tongues can detect but we don’t share identical taste buds.  It’s entirely possible that biological variation can cause some people to be more sensitive to bitter sensations than others.  Generally speaking, it seems that bitterness can sometimes be a factor with the traditional, large eggplants, particularly with older specimens.  I think it just simply boils down to whether a person likes the taste of eggplant or not.

     Eggplants originated in India, although related varieties may have arisen in China as well. It has been cultivated in India, China and neighboring countries since pre-historical times. Interestingly, eggplants were a latecomer to the Mediterranean region, not being known there until about 1500 years ago.  But it was even later before its popularity really took off.  The Arabs brought it to Spain by the 12th century where it spread throughout other parts of Europe.  It was also one of the first plants introduced into the new world by the Spanish.  Eggplant was being grown in Brazil in the 1600’s.  

     In addition to the traditional, egg-shaped eggplants ubiquitous to American supermarkets, there are many other kinds of eggplant.  Italian eggplant look like a smaller version of the regular ones but have a more delicate skin and texture.  Japanese eggplant are oblong and slender, are often brighter purple, and have a sweeter flesh.  There’s even a white eggplant which sports a tough skin but smooth flesh.  Whatever variety, choose eggplants with a firm, smooth, unblemished skin devoid of any soft spots.  Use eggplants as soon as possible.  They don’t last long even in the fridge.  Because they’re a tropical plant they don’t take well to cold.  All eggplants are amenable to a variety of cooking methods including sautéing, pan-frying, deep frying, baking, and especially grilling.  Nothing is as delicious or easy as coating thick sliced eggplant with olive oil, salt and pepper and searing it on a hot grill.  So whatever it is and whatever you want to call it, just simply enjoy it.

Also Visit Mark’s website: Food for Thought Online


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