Megan Saynisch is a freelance writer, cook, gardener and the creator of Brooklynfarmhouse.com.
My husband and I were lucky enough to spend our honeymoon – 6 years ago – in Thailand. Everything about the country was a revelation for me, from the stunning beauty of Bangkok’s gold-leafed Temple of the Emerald Buddha, to the friendliness of the people, to the eggplant. (Yes, the eggplant.) OK, the food in general was amazing: our first foray into the streets of Bangkok led us to a vendor cooking Pad Thai – a perfect balance of the Thai culinary quadrangle of salty, sweet, tangy and spicy and topped with raw banana flower, it was nothing like the Pad Thai I'd had stateside. Other gastronomic mind-blowers included the best fried chicken I've ever had, thrown (thrown!) to us from a woman on a dock as our ferry pulled away and a Thai curry with eggplant so fiery that the chef came out of the kitchen to apologize. We accepted her apology with our eyes and noses streaming, ears clogged and grinning wildly from the transcendental experience that really, really spicy food brings.
But what was super cool was checking out the fruit and vegetable markets, seeing and tasting unfamiliar stuff like dragon fruit, longan and eggplant in colors and sizes I'd never seen before. The most common eggplant in Thailand seemed to be a variety called (appropriately) Thai eggplant (or Lao eggplant, depending on where your loyalty lies), globe-shaped and green-and-white striped. Other common Thai varieties are long, skinny and light green and teeny tiny “pea eggplant” that grows in grape-like clusters. Since that trip, I've become obsessed with growing esoteric varieties of the infamous nightshade, the endless different shapes, colors and tastes of which are staggering. Last year I grew Striped Togo eggplant (a.k.a., Ethiopian eggplant), which are small and oval and turn bright orange with green stripes when ripe, and Udumalapet eggplant, an orange-and-purple Indian variety. This year, though, I'm reliving our honeymoon by growing round Thai eggplant for quick stir fries. Admittedly, it’s nothing like the transcendental experience of Thailand, but it'll do in a pinch – until we can make our way back.
A Brief History
The Chinese thought eggplant caused uterus injury, the Persians blamed it for everything from pimples to leprosy and those kooky Medieval Europeans ascribed the fruit to “melancholy” and anger.
Botanically classified as a fruit, eggplant is native to a wide area stretching from India to Southeast Asia and into southern China. The first documented writing about it comes from India as early as 300 B.C.E., where it was probably cultivated for both food and as a medicinal plant. The Chinese were also early adopters of the fruit as a source of both food and medicine – eggplant is discussed in a Chinese plant atlas from the 2nd century C.E. (Can we just take a moment here to marvel at the fact that there was a Chinese plant atlas in the 2nd century?) Eggplant quickly spread to Japan and Korea, and then to the Persian Empire. The Muslim expansion in the 8th and 9th centuries brought eggplant to the Mediterranean, where it has become firmly entrenched in the culinary culture of Spain, Italy, Southern France and the Middle East. The fruit finally made its way across the globe to the Americas during Spain’s expansion in the 15th century.
Early eggplant consumption was viewed with much ambiguity, as eggplant-adopting cultures frequently ascribed all sorts of health problems to eggplant in their culinary and medicinal writings. The Chinese thought eggplant caused uterus injury, the Persians blamed it for everything from pimples to leprosy and those kooky Medieval Europeans ascribed the fruit to “melancholy” and anger. It was thought that many of these eggplant-induced troubles could be mitigated through liberal salting and rinsing prior to cooking, a culinary technique that is still in existence today – although the usefulness of this is debatable (see “To Salt or Not to Salt,” below).
The first American recipe comes from Mrs. Mary Randolph’s seminal 1860 cookbook The Virginia Housewife, in which Mrs. Randolph describes two preparations for “the purple ones”: the first a dish of breaded and fried eggplant slices, the other a recipe for meat-stuffed whole eggplant.
- Eggplants were originally termed “mad apples” in Europe, in keeping with the unimaginative European propensity to name every vegetable some variation of “apple” (tomato = “love apple,” potato = “Devil’s apple,” etc.).
- The genetic variation of eggplant is amazing: check out this picture from India, where eggplant (or brinjal, as it is called on the Subcontinent) is known as the “king of vegetables.”
- Despite the word “eggplant” being synonymous with a deep purple color, some early eggplant cultivars were, in fact, white and egg-shaped. Eggplant is called aubergene in most of the rest of the English-speaking world.
- The world’s largest organic baingan bharta (for the record, my favorite eggplant dish) was cooked in New Delhi, India in 2011, as a protest of the introduction of genetically engineered eggplant in India.
- Eggplant Parmesan supposedly induces labor. It is unclear if this is: a) true and b) due to the eggplant or to some other ingredient in the dish.
Like its brethren tomatoes, potatoes and peppers, eggplant is part of the geographically wide-ranging and economically important Solanum (nightshade) family. China leads the world in eggplant cultivation, followed by India, Egypt, Iran and Turkey. US production doesn’t even come close: the US grew over 70,000 tons of eggplant in 2010, while China grew over 28 million tons the same year. Their tropical origins means that eggplant require a great deal of sunlight and heat to grow.
International production of eggplant is highly concentrated between China and India – the two countries produce over 83% of the world’s eggplant. Chinese production of the fruit is environmentally problematic, because monocropping, large amounts of chemical fertilizer and liberal application of pesticides is pretty much the norm. Indian eggplant production is also not without environmental controversy. Between 2006 and 2009, Mahyco, an Indian seed company, in partnership with Monsanto (both already infamous for creating and marketing the controversial genetically engineered (GE) Bt cotton in India), developed a GE variety of Bt eggplant designed to resist common eggplant-destroying insects. However, after scientists, farmers and the general public raised concerns, along with widespread protests, a moratorium on Bt eggplant was called in India in 2010. This moratorium appears to be indefinite – or at the very least, has yet to be lifted – and seems to have set a precedent, potentially halting the development of other GE fruits and vegetables in India.
Although US production of eggplant is globally negligible, in eggplant-growing states such as Florida, the crop is often monocropped and a number of pesticides are used to control common pests and fungi. The Environmental Working Group’s 2012 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce lists eggplant as number 41 (out of 49 ) for pesticide residue. (See our vegetable rule of thumb.*) Check with your local farmer to learn about his/her methods to be sure.
Eggplant is a warm-weather plant, so in most parts of the country local eggplant is only available in mid-summer through early fall. Super fresh is best – the fresher the eggplant, the less bitter its flavor.
Admittedly, eggplants aren’t the most nutritious members of the nightshade family – they're just OK sources of manganese, thiamin, Vitamin B6, Vitamin K and folate, and they are fairly high in fiber and low in calories. But the skin of the eggplant – especially purple varietals – is where the nutritional magic happens. Eggplant skin has potent antioxidant properties, some of which may even help with the control of type 2 diabetes and hypertension. Too bad that a lot of classic eggplant recipes call for removing the nutritious skin!
What to Look for
Eggplant comes in many different colors and sizes, from the common large, teardrop-shaped purple variety to long and skinny Asian varietals. Regardless of size, shape or color of the fruit, look for glossy, unblemished skin and a very firm texture when (gently) squeezed. Larger eggplant tends to be more bitter than smaller-sized specimens.
What To Do with It
Eggplant doesn’t like the cold – it’s a tropical plant, after all – and so doesn’t keep well in the refrigerator for longer than 2-4 days, depending on how soon after harvest it is purchased. Longer storage = bitterness. If you plan to cook your eggplant right away, leave it out on the counter.
Eggplant is a multitalented fruit, equally at home on the grill as in the deep fryer. The most famous eggplant dishes tend to fall into one of four categories: the pureed (see: baba ganoush and baingan bharta), the fried (see: eggplant parm), the stewed (see: ratatouille – for the record, my most hated dish ever, though this one looks good) and the stuffed. Eggplant’s classic culinary companions are other members of the nightshade family, including tomatoes and peppers, both sweet and hot. The fruit also pairs spectacularly well with garlic and onions, and is a natural with basil, oregano and parsley.
Eggplant oxidizes (turns brown when exposed to air) fairly quickly, so cut it right before you plan to cook it. A squeeze of lemon juice will help stop the browning if you
To Salt or Not to Salt?
Many of us grew up believing that salting eggplant keeps the resulting eggplant dish from being either too bitter or too oily. The thinking is that this “disgorging” (gross term, I know) process draws out the bitter juices from the fruit and keeps the eggplant from soaking up too much oil. (Because one of its famous culinary proclivities is its spongy texture, eggplant tends to soak up lots and lots of oil.) The marvelous food scientist Harold McGee confirms what our Italian grandmas have been saying: salting eggplant does, indeed, keep the fruit from soaking up too much oil in the cooking process, by partially collapsing its cell walls. McGee says salting probably does not help reduce the bitter taste that some eggplant has. If you tend to find eggplant too bitter, choose smaller-sized, very fresh specimens.
Eggplant “Fries” with Honey
The first time I had eggplant fries was at Poppy restaurant in Seattle. The fries were crunchy and amazing, sprinkled with course sea salt and drizzled with honey. I'm pretty sure the restaurant deep-fried their eggplant fries, but the recipe below, adapted fromThe Endless Meal, calls for oven baking to cut down on fat and calories. And keep the skin on the eggplant to get all of those excellent antioxidant benefits! Instead of honey, eggplant fries are also delicious with a yogurt dip, or try the chipotle mayo in the original recipe.
Olive or other vegetable oil (or cooking spray)
1 medium purple (Italian) eggplant
1 cup course dry breadcrumbs
Freshly ground black pepper
1⁄3 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
2 large eggs
Flavorful honey, such as orange blossom or lavender
Course sea salt
1. Preheat the oven to broil (or the hottest your oven goes up to, if you don’t have a “broil” option). Brush a medium baking sheet with oil (or use cooking spray).
2. Leaving the skin on, cut the eggplant into ½ ; inch thick French-fry shapes.
3. In a shallow dish or pie plate, combine the breadcrumbs, Parmesan, a generous pinch of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.
4. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs until very well combined.
5. Dip an eggplant “fry” into the eggs, letting the excess drip off, then coat in breadcrumbs. Place on prepared baking sheet. Repeat with all eggplant “fries.”
6. Broil for 4-5 minutes on one side (or until golden brown), then flip and broil 4-5 minutes on the other side.
7. To serve: drizzle with honey and sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Eat immediately.
Stretching Your Fresh Food Dollar Though Preservation
Eggplant can be blanched and frozen, but the result will be pretty mushy (which could be fine for recipes like baba ganoush where the eggplant is pureed anyway). Serious Eats has lots of other ideas for preserving an abundance of eggplant, including making and freezing eggplant dishes like caponataand making a delicious-sounding eggplant pickle that can be canned or stored long-term in the refrigerator.
(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)