Getting Excited About Eggplant

Eggplants (Solanum melongena) are members of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, which also includes peppers, tomatoes, goji berries, tomatillos, potatoes, tobacco, and petunias.

The word eggplant in English dates to the British occupation of India, where white egg-shaped fruits were very popular in some areas, although in British English, it is now commonly referred to as aubergine. Brinjal, used in India, derives from the Portuguese beringela coined when the Portuguese dominated the trade between India and Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. In the Renaissance, eggplants were referred to both as mala insana (mad apple), the origin of the Italian melanzana and the Greek melitzane, and poma amoris (love apple), a name shared with tomato during the 16th century. They are also known as melongenes, garden eggs, or guinea squash.

Eggplant is indigenous to an area of southern Asia stretching from northeast India and Burma, to Northern Thailand, Laos, Viet Nam and Southwest China. Wild forms nightshade, the thorn or bitter apple, S. incanum, can still be found in these locations. People in India and Burma domesticated eggplant. Several Sanskrit documents, dated from as early as 300 BC, mention eggplant and suggest its wide popularity as food and medicine.

Eggplant was cultivated in China as early as the third century AD, as the Atlas of Plants in Southern China written during the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316 CE) mentions it.

The ancient Greeks and Romans were unfamiliar with eggplant, but Muslims spread it throughout the Mediterranean Basin in the 7th and 8th centuries. Persian and Arab sailors brought eggplant to East Africa by the 8th century, as indicated by the many terms for eggplant in Ethiopia. Eggplant also reached Japan about the 8th century at the time of the Tang dynasty.

The Persian scholar Al RazI (865-925), the discoverer of alcohol, refers to purple eggplant in Ketab al-hawI-fi’l-teeb. The philosopher Abu Ibn Sina (980-1037), warned that eggplant could cause pimples, ophthalmia, ulcers, impetigo, leprosy, elephantiasis, intestinal constriction and blockage, blood thickening and blackening, insomnia, epilepsy, and excess of black bile. But he and other writers also mentioned that taking special precautions such as salting, soaking, and cooking ripe eggplant, would make it good for neutralizing bile and treating ear diseases.

In the 11th century, Bagdad physician Ibn Butlan wrote the medical treatise Taqwim al-sihha bi al-ashab al-sitta (straightening up health by six causes) and mentioned eggplant.

The Circa instans of Matthaeus Platearius from the 12th century noted that the bitterness and pungency of eggplants could cause a melancholic and angry mood, provoking various ailments, but these ill effects could be reduced by special preparation using salt and rinsing. Also in the 12th century, the Andalusian-Arab physician Abul al Walid Ibn Rushd mentioned eggplant, and the agriculturalist Ibn Al Awam of Seville described its cultivation in his Kitab al-Felahah (Book of Agriculture), suggesting that eggplant was common in southern Spain at that time. Ibn Al Awam mentioned four cultivated types: white Egyptian, violet Syrian, dark purple local, and black Cordoban. Similar types were cultivated in Israel during the Mamelouk period starting in 1250.

The German philosopher, theologian, and scientist, Albertus Magnus, mentioned eggplant in his De Vegetabilibus in 1256. An illustration of eggplant appeared in the Italian herbal De Herbis in the 1330s. 

Eggplant images appeared in Tacuinum Sanitatis or Tables of Health, picture books for upper-class families of the 14th and 15th centuries that were derived from the 11th-century medical treatise Taqwim al-sihha bi al-ashab al-sitta

In the 16th century, Spanish explorers brought their favorite foods to the Caribbean, including eggplant. The slave traders also brought eggplant to the Caribbean from Africa. Heat-loving eggplant thrived and became a familiar addition to Caribbean gardens. Around that same time, English, Dutch, and Portuguese explorers sailed to distant regions and discovered fruits and vegetables that they had never seen or eaten before. When they returned to their home countries with these new foods, some were readily accepted, but many were not. Eggplant’s nightshade connections aroused suspicion in northern Europe.

In 16th century herbals, most illustrations of eggplant were based on an image in the 1543 New Kreüterbuch by Leonhart Fuchs of a plant with oblong fruits that Fuchs compared to apples. Renaissance herbalists such as Matthioli (1544) mentioned the aphrodisiac properties of eggplant: “people who eat love apples are receptive to flirtation.” Matthioli wrote that eggplant was commonly eaten in Italy. In more Northern countries such as Germany and England, where eggplants did not grow as well, herbalists warned about the dangers of eating eggplants. In 1597, The English herbalist John Gerarde wrote in The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, “the fruit . . . [is] great and somewhat long, of the bignesse of a Swans egge, and sometimes much greater, of a white colour, sometimes yellow, and often browne.” He also wrote: “This plant groweth in Egypt almost everywhere… bringing forth fruit of the bigness of a great cucumber…. We have had the same in our London gardens, where it hath borne flowers, but the winter approaching before the time of ripening, it perished: nothwithstanding it came to bear fruit of the bigness of a goose egg one extraordinary temperate year… but never to the full ripeness.” Gerarde also warned: “in Egypt and Barbarie, they use to eate the fruite of Mala insana boiled or rosted under ashes with oile, vinegar, and pepper, as people use to eate Mushroms. But I rather wishe Englishmen to content themselves with the meate and sauce of our own country, than with fruite and sauce eaten with such perill: for doubtlesse these apples have a mischeevous quality; the use thereof is utterly to be forsaken. …Therefore it is better to esteeme this plant and have him in the garden for your pleasure and the rarenesse thereof, then for any virtue or good qualities yet knowne.”

Louis XIV, King of France during the 17th century, liked to serve guests new fruits and vegetables, and was the first in France to have eggplant planted in his garden. His guests were not impressed with eggplant at first. People at the time believed that eating eggplant caused fever and epilepsy. John Parkinson, an English 17th century horticulturist, mentions “that in Italy and other hot countries, where they [eggplants] come to their full maturity, and proper relish, they doe eate them with more desire and pleasure than we do Cowcumbers.” Eggplant had reached Brazil by 1648. 

Russia experienced growth and expansion starting in the 16th century. As the Russians moved into the warmer regions of the Ukraine, they were able to grow more fruits and vegetables including eggplants that probably traveled northward from India or China.

Thomas Jefferson was an avid gardener who sought to collect new plants by importing seeds from European during the 18th century. Eggplant was one of many exotic plants he introduced into his garden at Monticello. Botanical illustrations popular during the 18th century continued to depict eggplants. By the end of the 18th century, seed catalogs became available and illustrated eggplants. The Incroyables (“incredibles”) and their female counterparts, the Merveilleuses (“marvelous women”, roughly equivalent to “fabulous divas”), were members of a fashionable aristocratic subculture in Paris during the French Directory (1795–1799). Eating grilled eggplant was one of the fashions they promoted.

Botanists of the 19th century considered the eggplant an ornamental rather than a food plant. Eggplant may have been introduced into American gardens in the early 19th century, where it was grown as an ornamental. Though few Americans knew about eggplant in the mid-19th century, it was one of President Andrew Johnson’s favorite foods, especially Stuffed Eggplant Spanish Style. To prepare it, the eggplant was first halved and the flesh chopped. The stuffing was a combination of tomatoes, onions, breadcrumbs, and celery, and seasoned with basil, salt, pepper, and a touch of sugar. Before they were served, the eggplants were garnished with overlapping fresh tomato slices. With the arrival of Chinese and Italian immigrants to the United States during the late 19th century, Americans adopted new foods. Many cities, such as Detroit and New York, offered immigrant gardeners the use of vacant lots to grow their familiar vegetables like eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers.

Eggplant was becoming increasingly popular in the United States by the early 20th century, with recipes appearing in cookbooks. Modern Cooking, a 1904 cookbook by Marion Hartland and Christine Herrick, contains a recipe for Eggplant Stuffed with Nuts. Eggplant continued to inspire artists into the 20th century, including Henri Matisse (1869-1954), who painted Interior With Eggplants in 1911. President Warren G. Harding, inaugurated March 4, 1921, favored Eggplant Salad West Coast Style consisting of eggplant slices that were first baked, then marinated in a mixture of mayonnaise, vinegar, lemon juice, salt, pepper, Worcestershire and chili sauces and presented in a lettuce-lined bowl.

Dublin-born playwright and vegetarian George Bernard Shaw, who died in 1950 at age 94, enjoyed Savory Eggplant, Eggplant au Gratin, and Stuffed Eggplant which were made by his cook and housekeeper, Mrs. Alice Laden.

In North America today, commercial eggplant crops are grown in New Jersey in the summer and in California and Mexico throughout the winter.

In addition to providing vitamins and minerals, eggplant also contains important phytochemicals, many which have antioxidant activity, including phenolic compounds, such caffeic and chlorogenic acid, and flavonoids, such as nasunin. Eggplant can:

  1. Protect your brain. An anthocyanin phytochemical in eggplant skin called nasunin is a potent antioxidant that can protect cell membranes from damage. Cell membranes are almost entirely composed of lipids and are responsible for protecting the cell from free radicals, letting nutrients in and wastes out, and receiving instructions from messenger molecules that tell the cell which activities it should perform. Nasunin protects the lipids (fats) in brain cell membranes. 
  2. Fight free radicals. Eggplants are rich sources of phenolic compounds that function as antioxidants. Plants form such compounds to protect themselves against oxidative stress from exposure to the elements, as well as from infection by bacteria and fungi. The predominant phenolic compound in eggplant is chlorogenic acid, which is one of the most potent free radical scavengers found in plant tissues. Chlorogenic acid has antimutagenic (anti-cancer), antimicrobial, anti-LDL (bad) cholesterol, and antiviral activities. In addition to chlorogenic acid, eggplants contain 13 other phenolic acids. Black Magic, a commercial eggplant cultivar, has nearly three times the amount of antioxidant phenolics as other eggplant cultivars. In addition to their nutritive potential, the phenolic acids in eggplant are responsible for some eggplants’ bitter taste and the browing that results when their flesh is cut. An enzyme called polyphenol oxidase triggers a phenolic reaction that produces brown pigments.
  3. Promote cardiovascular health. Eggplant lowers blood cholesterol, cholesterol in artery walls, and cholesterol in your aorta (the artery that returns blood from your heart back into circulation in your body). It also relaxes the walls of your blood vessels, improving blood flow. These positive effects are likely due to nasunin and several other terpene phytochemicals in eggplant. Nasunin is not only a potent free radical scavenger, but is also an iron chelator. Although iron is an essential nutrient and is necessary for oxygen transport, normal immune function and collagen synthesis, too much iron is not a good thing. Excess iron increases free radical production and is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and cancer. Menstruating women, who lose iron every month in their menstrual flow, are unlikely to be at risk, but in postmenopausal women and men, iron, which is not easily excreted, can accumulate. By chelating iron, nasunin lessens free radical formation with numerous beneficial results, including protecting blood cholesterol (which is also a type of lipid or fat) from peroxidation; preventing cellular damage that can promote cancer; and lessening free radical damage in joints, which is a primary factor in rheumatoid arthritis.
  4. Fight disease. Saponins in eggplant lower blood cholesterol, decrease risk of cardiovascular disease, prevent cancer cells from growing and mutating, neutralize free radicals, stimulate your immune system by increasing the production of antibodies, fight bacterial and fungal infections, reduce inflammation, lower blood glucose responses, prevent dental cavities, protect against bone loss, and increase the effectiveness of certain vaccines. Delphinidin in eggplant is a powerful antioxidant that can protect your body’s cells from damaging free radicals, and may prevent inflammation, atherosclerosis, cancer, and heart disease. Oxalic acid in eggplant is believed to be successful in fighting several kinds of tumor cells.

Eggplant is very low in calories and fats but rich in soluble fiber content: 100 grams provides just 35 calories, but contributes about 10% of the Daily Value (DV) of fiber.

Nutrients in 100 Grams of Cooked Eggplant (1 Generous Cup of Cubes)

Nutrient

Amount

Daily Value

molybdenum

9.00 mcg

12%

fiber

2.5 g

10%

manganese

0.1 mg

6%

thiamine

0.1 mg

5%

vitamin K

2.9 mcg

4%

potassium

123 mg

4%

vitamin B6

0.1 mg

4%

folate

14 mcg

3%

copper

0.1 mg

3%

niacin

0.6 mg

3%

magnesium

11 mg

3%

carbohydrates

8.7 g

3%

vitamin C

1.3 mg

2%

vitamin E

0.4 mg

2%

protein

0.8 g

2%

tryptophan

8 mg

2%

Calories

35

2%

choline

9.4 mg

1.7%

vitamin A

37 IU

1%

phosphorus

15 mg

1%

iron

0.3 mg

1%

calcium

6 mg

1%

zinc

0.1 mg

1%

pantothenic acid

0.1 mg

1%

riboflavin

0.02 mg

1%

fat

0.2 g

0.3%

selenium

0.1 mcg

0.1%

sodium

1 mg

0.04%

Eggplants are available afresh all around the season. In the stores, varieties of eggplants varying in size, shape, and color are put for sale.

Choose eggplants that are healthy-looking, firm, smooth, shiny, bright-colored, and that feel heavy and solid. Take a close look at the stem and end cap; if it is stout, firm, and bright green, that means the eggplant is fresh. Avoid those that are discolored, scarred, cut, bruised, shriveled, wrinkled, soft, which usually indicate that the flesh beneath has become damaged and possibly decayed. Always avoid over-mature, old-stock, and sunken eggplants as they taste bitter and, therefore, unappetizing. As you would with other fruits and vegetables, avoid purchasing eggplant that has been waxed. To test for the ripeness of an eggplant, gently press the skin with the pad of your thumb. If it springs back, the eggplant is ripe.

If you purchase eggplant that is wrapped in plastic film, remove it as soon as possible since it will inhibit the eggplant from breathing and degrade its freshness.

Eggplants are very perishable. They are sensitive to both heat and cold and should ideally be stored at around 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius). Do not cut eggplant before you store it, as it perishes quickly once its skin has been punctured or its inner flesh exposed. Place uncut and unwashed eggplant in a the refrigerator crisper set on high humidity, where it will keep for a few days. If it is too large for the crisper, do not try to force it in; this will damage the skin and cause the eggplant to spoil and decay. Instead, place it on a shelf within the refrigerator.

Wash eggplant thoroughly in cold water before use. Trim the stalk end using a sharp, stainless steel knife as carbon steel will react with its phytochemicals and cause it to turn black.

You can eat most eggplants either with or without their skin. However, the larger ones and the white ones generally have tough skins that may not be palatable. To remove skin, you can peel it before cutting or if you are baking it, you can scoop out the flesh once it is cooked.

To tenderize the flesh’s texture and reduce some of its naturally occurring bitter taste, you can sweat the eggplant by salting it. After cutting the eggplant into the desired size and shape, sprinkle it with salt and allow it to rest for about 30 minutes. This process will pull out some of its water content and make it less permeable to absorbing any oil used in cooking. Rinsing the eggplant after “sweating” will remove most of the salt.

Eggplant can be baked, roasted in the oven, or steamed. If baking it whole, pierce the eggplant several times with a fork to make small holes for the steam to escape. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (about 177 degrees Celsius) for 15 to 25 minutes, depending upon size. You can test for its readiness by gently inserting a knife or fork to see if it passes through easily.

Eggplant is widely used in cooking, most notably as an important ingredient in dishes such as moussaka and ratatouille.

Here are some serving tips:

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