Eggplant, a member of the Nightshade family, is closely related to the tomato and potato, and is native to India. It has been cultivated in southeastern Asian since prehistoric times and became known in the Western world around 1500. It was first mentioned in a written record found in China, in Qi min yao shu, an agricultural treatise completed in 544. Eggplant’s numerous Arabic and North African names for the plant, combined with the lack of ancient Greek or Roman names for it, indicates that eggplant was introduced to the Mediterranean in the early Middle Ages.
Like most nightshade members, eggplant was thought to be poisonous if ingested. For centuries after its introduction into Europe, eggplant was used more as a decorative garden plant than as a food. Not until new varieties were developed in the 18th century, did eggplant lose its bitter taste and bitter reputation, and take its now esteemed place in the cuisines of many European countries, including Italy, Greece, Turkey and France.
Also called aubergine, melongene, brinjal, and guinea squash, much can be said about the nomenclature of the eggplant. The name aubergine , used in France and Britain, is a French derivative from "auberge" meaning "a kind of peach." Aubergine is also the name of the purple colour resembling the skin of the eggplant fruit. The name eggplant , used in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, refers to the fruits of early 18 th century cultivars, which were yellow or white and resembled goose or hen’s eggs.
Botanically classified as a berry, the fruit of the eggplant contains thousands of small, soft seeds that are edible, though bitter because they contain nicotinoid alkaloids.
Eggplants grow much like tomatoes, hanging from the vines of a plant that grows several feet high. One of the most popular varieties of eggplant in North America looks like a pear-shaped egg with glossy skin and deep purple colour. The flesh is cream coloured, with a spongy consistency. Different varieties of the plant produce fruits of different sizes, shapes, and colours. They range in size from that of a small tomato to a large zucchini and in colour from lavender, to jade green, orange, and yellow-white.
Although eggplants seem tough, they’re actually rather delicate. They’re sensitive to both heat and cold and should be stored whole to maintain freshness. Place uncut and unwashed eggplant in a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator crisper where it will keep for a few days.
Classic eggplant dishes include babaganoush, an eggplant dip made with pureed roasted eggplant, garlic, tahini, lemon juice, and olive oil. Babaganoush makes a great dip for a veggie platter or as a spread on a sandwich. Eggplants are also good stuffed and baked, grilled on the barbeque, or added to curry.
Eggplant is high in nasunin, an antioxidant found in deep purple fruits and vegetables. Also rich in fiber, vitamins (B1 and B6), and magnesium, niacin, and folic acid, eggplants are considered to be anticarcingenic and helpful in reducing cholesterol.