The Travels of the Eggplant

Follow the route of the gypsies as they distributed the eggplant — or aubergine, a tasty nightshade plant — across the continents.

udmalbet eggplant

Udmalbet is a summer resort set in the Ghat Mountains of Southern India where the Gypsies have come to entertain people with their music and stories. Here the Udmalbet eggplant has been selected and grown for many generations.

Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com

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Unlike tomatoes, potatoes, and chile peppers — its more famous cousins in the Nightshade family — the eggplant originated in the Old World and has not become widely popular around the globe. However, whenever the somehow-shy eggplant has been adopted by a particular culture, it has remained a key ingredient in cooking habits, allowing unlimited inspiration in recipes.

The domestication of the cultivated edible eggplant, Solanum melongen, can be traced back to its wild relative Solanum incamun whose berries had been used for thousands of years by the people in the Middle East for tanning hides.

The eggplant has followed two distinct routes in its expansion: Eastward to the Far East, and Westward to Europe. China and Sri Lanka have become secondary centers of origin for the Eastward expansion. The Westward expansion has resulted in Spain becoming the secondary center of origin for the species expansion in the Occidental world.

Its primary center of origin is in the arid state of Rajasthan in North Western India. This is where the Gypsies, also known as Romanies, started their odyssey sometime in the 6th century A.D. Legend says that the Romani people, a cast of musicians, angered the king who banned them and sent them wandering around the world. By the 14th century, they had reached Andalusia in Southern Spain.

The eggplant also invites us to a travel through etymology. The ancient Sanskrit name for it, “vatin-ganah,” has given the Persian word “badin-gan,” which became “al-badinjan” in Arabic, then “aubergine” in French — this term is also used in the United Kingdom — and “berenjena” in Spanish. The Italian word “melanzana” (“the apple of the insane”) comes from the Dark Ages: when eggplant was first introduced there, it was thought to be a poisonous fruit.

The Gypsies brought their music and dances on the way to Europe, deeply influencing styles such as flamenco, belly dancing and jazz. They also brought with them the seeds of the eggplant, which was a staple ingredient in their diet. As they traveled and settled along their way, the local populations adopted the new plant and have made their own local selections.

We now invite you to a culinary journey with them. We will share with you some of these selections that we have been able to gather on the Route of the Gypsies.

India

Our travel starts in India with a colorful egg-shaped fruit of a light green color streaked in purple, a variety called ‘Udumalbet’ (the purplish streaking will remain a common feature in many future selections). ‘Udumalbet’ is used in chutneys and curries.

India has so many local varieties of eggplant that it would require a whole library to list and describe them. In fact, the variety ‘Udumalbet’ is named after a very old summer resort town in the highlands of Southern India, meaning that seeds had already traveled for hundreds of years from the northern region of Rajasthan down south.

Most of the varieties still to be found in India have a white flesh and are very spiny on the green calyx. One would think that a spineless variety would be easier to harvest and to handle for cooking, however prickliness is perceived in India as sign of better organoleptic quality and nobody would buy an eggplant without spines on the stem and on the calyx.

Syria

The Fertile Crescent in the Middle East became a major center of diversification for eggplant; this is where a lot of the different shapes, skin and flesh colors have been selected by the different people under a variety of physical and cultural environments. Eggplant fruits can come in a lot of different shapes from round to oval to cylindrical; they can also take a lot of different colors and color patterns, from black to purple to white and from uniform to striped.

It is time now to mention the never-ending debate between white flesh and green flesh. The former is usually denser, milder and doesn’t oxidize as fast around the seeds; the latter can have a bitter flavor especially around the seeds and tends to oxidize quickly once sliced. To avoid the bitterness, eggplant should be harvested at a young stage when fruits are still small; the more you let the fruit develop in size and let seeds grow inside, the more bitterness you will get, except with white flesh that will stay mild.

The green flesh appeared later as a mutation fixing chlorophyll inside the fruit. It is genetically dominant over the white flesh and was often preferred, but not always, in the Westward travel of the eggplant because it is also linked to a dark and shiny skin color.

Turkey

Now, the eggplant had reached Constantinople and was just one step away from Europe across the Golden Gate. With the Christians and Muslims fighting over the region, the Gypsies were still entertaining both sides with their music and dances. The seeds of the eggplant made their way through unsettled times and places to the sound of the lute.

Italy

We are now in the region of Tuscany in Northern Italy where the gypsies have enjoyed the abundance of the local rural life and have enriched it with this new vegetable, which was first called “the apple of the insane” (melanzana); this also tells us that the Gypsies were suspect and not always welcome.

This also brings up the question: Is raw eggplant poisonous? Eggplant, like tomatoes, contains an alkaloid called solanine that helps protect the plant against predator insects. Solanine can be found at higher concentrations in the leaves and only at very small and totally harmless levels in the fruits; which is not the case of potatoes, where levels of solanine may be poisonous in green potatoes.

Italy is where the eggplant met her cousin from the Old World: the tomato, first called “the gold apple” (pomodoro).

France

The Gypsies have settled in the delta of the Rhone River in Provence where they converted to a very particular form of Christianity and where they hold a yearly pilgrimage to the little Mediterranean village of Saintes Maries de la Mer in honor of Saint Sara. Legend says that dark-skinned Saint Sara was the Egyptian servant of Mary Magdalena, Mary Salome and Mary Jacobe who were the first witnesses to the empty tomb at the resurrection of Christ. The three Marys fled to Alexandria in Egypt after the Crucifixion of Jesus and then set sail further towards the West and were cast adrift the coast of France at a location that became known as Notre Dame de Ratis (Our Lady of the Boat) and later was changed into Saintes Maries de la Mer. A statue of Sara is in the crypt of the church, which also encloses a 4th century B.C. pagan altar. On May 24th each year, a procession of Gypsies from all over Europe carries the statue to the sea and back to the crypt.

In France the eggplant took a black-skinned appearance and was married to her beloved cousin the tomato in the famous dish called “ratatouille.”

Spain

Andalusia is the European end of the Gyspsies' journey; there they finally found the hospitality of kings in their grandiose palaces of the Sultans of Granada and of Sevilla. In this cultural melting pot, they created a new musical style now called “flamenco.” A visit to the Palace of the Alhambra in Granada, and a thorough tour of the gardens will give you an idea of the sophistication of the gardening techniques inherited from the Moors.

Interestingly, the famous ‘Listada de Gandia’ eggplant, the furthest in distance, is the closest in shape, color, and flavor to the original eggplant the Gypsies had first carried in their pockets from India. It looks like the Gypsies managed to save some of their original seeds with very little variation.

From Spain, the eggplant crossed the ocean and arrived in the New World where it is still waiting to be fully adopted in American cooking.


To try some regional eggplant recipes, see:

Indian Chutney Made with "Udumalbet" Eggplant Recipe
Syrian Eggplant Caviar Recipe
Eggplant Beignets with Goat Cheese Recipe
Italian Eggplant Gratin
Classic French Ratatouille Recipe
Vegan Eggplant Tajine
A Gypsy Favorite: Catouns, or Grilled Eggplant, Recipe


Richard Bernard grew up in France and his life with seeds has taken him to many places around the world. Richard lives with his wife Celine in Santa Fe, where he helps local seed saving initiatives and manages the farmers’ market for the Pueblo of Pojoaque.