Cooking Fresh with Eggplant
By Dani Lind | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
Raise your hand if eggplant is your favorite vegetable. What? No hands?
Ok fine, if you’re going to be exact about it, I know it’s not a vegetable. Technically it’s a fruit. But we eat it as a vegetable so just humor me. Still no hands? Come on, but eggplant is so… Delicious? Versatile? Nutritious? Well, at least pretty?
Just as I suspected. Eggplant is not the most popular vegetable here in Middle America. It’s probably safe to say that if you’re from Wisconsin, unless you’re vegetarian, or from an eggplantloving ethnic community, or have a community supported agriculture share from a local farmer, you probably have had very little exposure to eggplant. Sure, you may have tried eggplant Parmesan at an Italian chain restaurant, or maybe sampled an eggplant curry at an Indian buffet (although you may not have known it was eggplant since Indians call it brinjal). But most of us can’t say that we really know or love eggplant.
Maybe it’s not eggplant’s fault but history’s that it’s not more popular here in the Midwest. Eggplant was never a part of the culinary traditions of the Native Americans that originally lived here or the Scandinavian and German settlers that followed. Outside of certain ethnic neighborhoods in a few urban areas, it simply wasn’t a part of our heritage.
But eggplant’s international culinary heritage is huge. A map of the world’s leading eggplant producers (China, India, Iran, Egypt, Turkey and Indonesia) would correspond almost exactly to a map of its historical spread through the world since prehistory, which would also look much like a map of where the most eggplant recipes come from—Indian, Chinese, Southeast Asian, Japanese, Middle Eastern, North African, and Italian cuisines.
A big misconception I’ve always had about eggplant is that it’s a New World plant. I figured that since it’s a member of the nightshade family that it must be indigenous to the Americas like its brethren the tomato, potato and pepper. So wrong! Eggplant’s wild ancestors are native to either India or Africa (no one is exactly sure). After it was domesticated, it has been cultivated in both China and India since prehistoric times, and it’s been popular throughout tropical and sub-tropical Asia ever since. Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Burma—they all have a rich repertoire of eggplant dishes including pickles, stir-fries, and curries from countless generations.
In the Middle Ages, Arab traders brought domesticated eggplant to the Middle East and Northern Africa from India and East and Southeast Asia via the Silk Road trading routes. From Iran to Lebanon and from Turkey to Egypt, ancient eggplant recipes abound: dips, salads, pickles, stuffing, kebabs and endless others.
From there it is believed that eggplant first spread to Europe during the Moorish invasions of Spain in the eighth century and of Southern Italy in the ninth century. Both Spain and Italy kept eggplant (called berenjena and melanzane, respectively) and assimilated it into their cuisine even after expelling the Arab and Berber invaders who introduced it.
Eggplant didn’t really spread past Spain, Portugal and Italy until the sixteenth century, when Louis XIV of France grew it in his garden as a beautiful new ornamental fruit called the aubergine. When it arrived in England, at first they called it “madde apple” because of its relation to deadly nightshade, and then "eggplant" after a small white variety that resembled an egg was introduced. Of tropical origin, it didn’t grow as well in Northern Europe as it did in the Mediterranean regions.
Spanish and Portuguese explorers brought it to Mexico in the sixteenth century, and then it came to the Caribbean via the slave trade from Africa. Even though Thomas Jefferson grew it in his famous Monticello garden, eggplant remained primarily an ornamental plant here in the States until Italian and Chinese immigrants in the early 1900s started growing it in their gardens to cook in their beloved native dishes.
Appreciate eggplant with these internationally inspired recipes!
So…what to do with it?
Maybe because I am a Midwesterner, for many years (including a whole decade of being vegetarian) I wasn’t impressed with eggplant. First, it was a pain in the butt to prepare because I was taught that you have to salt it, let it sit and drain, and then squeeze the moisture out before cooking it or else it will be too bitter. Second, I would usually try to fry it, and it would absorb way too much oil and get soggy and gross. Finally, I tried to grow it in my garden and it would always get annihilated by pests or nipped by frost. So if I wanted to cook with eggplant, I’d have to buy it, and let’s face it—there were just so many other vegetables I’d rather spend my money on. So I didn’t cook with it much.
But I was missing out! I just needed to look at eggplant differently and explore its more worldly culinary traditions. Turns out, most modern cultivars have had the bitterness of their seeds bred out of them, so you don’t need to do the whole salt-drain-squeeze treatment in most cases. The only time it makes sense is if you’re working with a particularly bitter heirloom variety or if you’re going to fry it (it helps them absorb less oil).
The first time I really enjoyed eggplant, I roasted it whole and made baba ganoush, the Middle Eastern dip made with tahini, garlic and olive oil. The second time was when a friend simmered slices of long, narrow Asian eggplant in a Thai coconut green curry.
It wasn’t until I started grilling it, though, that I really fell in love with eggplant. Now it’s one of my favorite summer vegetables. Slicing an eggplant into planks or rounds, brushing or rubbing with olive oil, sprinkling with coarse sea salt and then grilling them is a magical process. The slices caramelize on the outside and get almost crispy while the inside turns silky like custard. The flavor is richly savory, smoky and sweet, complex. If you don’t have access to a grill, roasting them in a hot oven or under the broiler can have a similar effect.
These grilled or roasted slices can be the basis of all sorts of dishes. They can be layered into casseroles like moussaka, ratatouille or lasagna. They can be used to top pizza or to stuff into sandwiches or pitas with other grilled summer vegetables. You can pickle them with vinegar, sugar and aromatics like an Italian caponata or Indian brinjal chutney. Or try topping them with Greek yogurt, walnuts, pomegranate molasses (or its easily homemade Midwest counterpart, rhubarb molasses) and fresh mint and parsley as a Persian-inspired appetizer or salad.
One of my favorite things to do with grilled eggplant slices is to top a lamb burger with them, along with some smoked gouda cheese, arugula, and a bright, creamy tahini sauce made with fresh garlic and lemon.
It turns out eggplant is super versatile after all—if we can just step outside of our bland Midwestern palate. Even though its origins are as a tropical plant, there are now many varieties that grow well here in the Midwest. So plant away, or look for some at the farmers market, and get ready to let exotic eggplant take you places you’ve never been to before!