A personal diary about life in a country town, Bungendore NSW Australia

  Sunday 29 June 2003
Eggplant sliced ready for  lasagna melanzane From Phillips & Rix, 'Vegetables' - The Garden Plant Series pub. Macmillan
'Easter egg', a variety of aubergine.
The 'egg' plant. 

Eggplant? Aubergine? Brinjal? The names for Solanum melongene, it appears, have a great deal of complicated historical derivation, just the stuff for a rainy afternoon of exploration. This is what you have reference books for. There is distinct pleasure in following up a word or phrase that leads you to discover another piece of garden (or worldly) knowledge. There's also nagging guilt about taking the time out when there's so much else to do, but life's too short to worry about that. 

I've seen lots of different shapes for eggplants, mostly purple but some striped and pale yellow in colour. All of them have been pear shaped or are long like a zucchini and I'm surprised that I'd never thought about why they were called eggplant, when they look nothing like eggs. 

From my garden reference it says that there are old varieties available that do look like eggs (and still being grown extensively for pickling in Spain). They are white, and shaped like a large egg. The plants were first mentioned in a 5th Century Chinese agricultural text book and may have originated in India. They became popular throughout Asia, and through trade with the Arabs and the Moorish conquest of Spain, arrived in Europe in the 13th Century. They were considered decorative and inedible in Europe. Albertus Magnus (who may or may not have been an alchemist) but wrote extensively as a botanist, mentions eggplants in the mid 13th Century. 

Alan Davidson says in his Oxford Companion to Food, that we call them eggfruit in Australia, something I've never heard. The Greeks know it as melitzana and the Italians as melanzana which both derive from the Latin name mela insana, and believing it was an apple ( mela) and that it made you insane (insana). The species Solanaceae includes nightshade and potatoes. The egg plant traveled with the Spanish and Portuguese to the Americas, where it quickly became popular. In the West Indies its Indian origin as brinjal apparently gives it the name 'brown jolly'. 

In the Oxford book's entry for 'Aubergine' it tells how that name has come as a progression from vatin gana, the name in Sanskrit, to badingen in Persian, to the Arabic albadingen to Spanish albadingena and to the French aubergine. Trust me (or rather, them).

The prompt for looking this up was a recipe for chickpea ratatouille in The Canberra Times Food and Wine supplement. It mentioned that 'the original recipe for this dish in an English cookbook suggests salting the eggplant first to draw out the bitterness but I've found that with the varieties in Australia we don't need to do that'. That's true, I've tried salting them myself, but gave it up as unnecessary and wondered why it was still suggested. I should have realized when the writer later said, 'the original recipe called for lots of oil on on the baked vegetable but I find just a brush of oil is enough'. Grilling eggplant for pasta alla norma uses lots of oil.

Apparently while the older versions of the eggplant were salted to draw off their bitterness, it also toughened the cell walls of the plant and stopped it absorbing so much oil in cooking. That's the main reason why it's suggested with the mild varieties we have today. 

Alan Davidson mentions 'the' most famous eggplant dish, "eaten all over the Arab world, called Imam bayaldi - 'the priest fainted'. This consists of aubergines stuffed with onions (also, in some recent recipes with tomatoes) and cooked in olive oil. There are two stories about the origin of the name. One is that the priest fainted because of the deliciousness of the dish; the other is that he fainted when he heard how much (expensive) oil his wife had used in making the recipe. The ability of aubergines to soak up vast amounts of oil is legendary.' 

That is of course one of the reasons why I love eggplant.

One of my favourite stories about Albertus Magnus is "that when as a dinner guest of William II, the Count of Holland, on New Year's Day, 1242, Magnus suggested the guests dine outdoors. He was trying to get William to donate a piece of land for a monastery, so he graciously changed the freezing day into a warm spring afternoon with blooming flowers and singing birds." I could do with that sort of garden control.

  Fred Harden 2003 <thinktag> After a few days, these entries are added to the Archive Menu

Bungendore Country Diary by Fred Harden