Learn about the history of different eggplant varieties from dishes prepared in ancient times to growing tips for today.
Eggplants are not only fun to grow, they are also among the showiest and ornamental of all the kitchen-garden vegetables. Furthermore, they like it hot, so they don’t shut down like tomatoes when the summer heat waves roll in.
And what a choice we have when it comes to shapes, colors, and range of flavors. There is just about an eggplant for every culinary situation, not to mention the decorative possibilities when growing them in tubs or pots on the terrace.
The name eggplant in English was derived from one such ornamental introduced to England in the 1500s: It sported little white fruits shaped like chicken eggs. The fruits were fairly bitter so they never made it into traditional English cookery.
Aside from the egg-shaped ornamentals, the diversity we see in eggplants is due to the vast size of this family of nightshades, for there are literally hundreds of varieties spread across a complex web of species and sub-species. The genetic origin of eggplants, at least those belonging to Solanum melongena (our common culinary eggplants), is presumed to be India or Southeast Asia, hence the immense biodiversity of eggplants in those parts of the world. Called brinjal in Hindi, eggplants are considered basic to Indian cooking and a key component of the vegetarian cuisine of Keralia, where eggplants go into everything from chutneys to stir-fries, even pickles and sweets.
While it may be an over-simplification, let it be said that eggplants fall into two broad categories: those that ripen yellow and those that ripen red or orange. Our common culinary eggplants turn yellow when they are ripe. At this stage they become hard and bitter, so just like zucchini (which also turns yellow when ripe) we are really eating the fruits when young and tender. Some varieties are even sweet at that stage of maturity, one reason they combine so well with tomato sauce and why nutmeg is sometimes used to enhance the flavor.
The group of eggplants that ripen red or orange generally belong to the species Solanum aethiopicum, an African cousin of the common eggplant. This is a large tribe of plants with many sub-groups such as Gilo and Kumba, both of which are represented in the Baker Creek seed catalog. The fruit of these eggplants turns scarlet red or orange, Turkish Orange and China Red being two good examples. These red-fruited varieties can be intensely bitter when fully ripe, a characteristic that endears them to traditional cooks in Africa and Southeast Asia, but is an acquired taste for most westerners. What many gardeners do not know is that eggplants like Turkish Orange are generally harvested for culinary purposes when green or unripe. At that stage they are relatively sweet and palatable and are ideal for pickles.
The Turkish Orange eggplant is also notable because it was grown in the Near East during the Middle Ages, both as a culinary plant and as a medical herb. It shows up in some of the earliest European herbals, and was called Turkish only because it came to Europe via that route; it was already growing in Asia Minor long before the Turks arrived in the 1300s. So was the other eggplant, the purple one we associate with Mediterranean cookery.
Aside from references in ancient Indian texts, the earliest European eggplants of record are depicted in Byzantine mosaics from about the late 400s AD and they are mentioned later in Arabic cookbooks from the 800s. Those purple-black eggplants grew on very thorny bushes and were about the same size and shape as large goose eggs. They were considered a key ingredient in summertime fare. They were also valued by Near Eastern Christians because they could be converted into meatless fasting dishes, one of the oldest being cooked, pureed eggplants mixed with olive oil and herbs and used as a dip for bread or pittas. The Byzantine Greeks mixed this with almond milk, at least in court cookery and considered the dish a health food because it was both nutritious and easy to digest.
This dip was adopted by the Order of St. John of Jerusalem as food for the religious pilgrims who stayed in the many hospices operated by the order. The French name for eggplants (aubergine) derives from auberge, the medieval French word for hospital; the original meaning was thus a preparation made in the hospital, or perhaps quite literally “hospital dip,” linguistic evidence that the Order of St. John most likely introduced the culinary eggplant to Europeans via the gardens attached to their hospices.
They introduced many other plants in this same manner, such as the St. John Onion (a type of shallot) and the blue clover used to flavor cheese (this herb is actually a close relative of fenugreek). Thus, a medieval reconstruction of auberginie (the dish) would probably include ground shallots, fenugreek, and of course almond milk.
Another medieval preparation and one that has survived almost unaltered over the past 10 centuries is pickled eggplant. It is mentioned in the earliest Arab cookbooks, which were themselves compiled from older Greek, Armenian, and Persian culinary manuals now lost. The idea behind the pickle was to create something that could be held over during the months when eggplants were not in season, and for Christians this made an ideal food for both fall and spring Lents (the 40 days leading up to Christmas, and the 40 days leading up to Easter).
This is why it is still such an integral part of Lebanese cooking today, and why Byzantine Greeks prepared baby eggplants like fruit, boiling them in honey or sugar to make a sticky sweet. Fasting may have eliminated all meat from the menu, but it did not mean one had to suffer! Thai Long Purple is ideal for this type of confection because the fruit can be sliced in half lengthwise, cooked in the preserve, and then packed vertically in preserve jars.
When it comes to eggplants, my personal preferences are the long-fruited varieties anyway. They are normally associated with Southeast Asia and figure in many traditional dishes from that region. The large-fruited Italian varieties, some of which weigh as much as small pumpkins, are trickier to use in cooking, first because you must know when to pick them before they turn seedy, and secondly because when sliced and fried they tend to absorb a lot of the cooking oil.
Judging from old medical texts, Byzantine and Arab physicians knew that eggplants were more nutritious once subjected to heat — I imagine they arrived at that conclusion by trial and error and close observation, so cooking, especially frying, has been a universal recommendation since ancient times. One of the earliest Arabic recipes for eggplants instructs us to bread and then fry them, a common treatment still popular today.
If you are growing eggplants for fun, then there is no harm in planting different kinds together in the same garden. I recommend trying as many as possible to find out which ones do well in your soil and microclimate, keeping in mind that eggplants like warm ground. You will get better results (more fruit per plant and bigger plants) if you put down black plastic around your eggplants since it heats up the soil and helps retain moisture after a rain.
I have also noticed that the plastic seems to reduce problems with flea beetles, little bugs that look like flecks of pepper. They do not like walking on the hot plastic probably because it cooks them, so in a sense the plastic becomes an effective barrier. The beetles bite holes in the eggplant leaves; this eventually weakens the plants or introduces diseases so anything that discourages these beetles is worth the trouble. A little insecticidal soap sprayed over the leaves from time to time also helps because the beetles do not like the way it tastes.
If you are growing eggplants for seed as I do, then you will need to be a lot more careful about your selection. You do not want eggplants of the same species near one another. I often plant a melongena beside an ethiopicum since they will not cross, and then perhaps 50 feet away another pair of the two species. If you have plenty of other flowering plants in your garden or along the edges, then there will be little need to worry about crossing, just be certain that your seed source states clearly what species you are buying.
Of course, for seed saving, you need to aim for perfection, so eat the ugly ones and leave the most perfect eggplants for seed. That way you will help perpetuate good characteristics. Your eggplants must also ripen on the bush, which means turning either yellow or red depending on the type. The seed is ripe when it is brown or light brown, and it is very easy to remove from the fruit if you squeeze out the seed in a pan of water. The good seed will sink to the bottom.
Rinse the seed off and let it dry on a fine screen or absorbent paper in a cool, well-ventilated space out of direct sunlight. I let the seed dry about a month just to be certain it won’t sprout mold when stored in dated envelopes in air-tight jars. Always date your seed because eggplant seed will be good for 6 to 7 years if properly stored, thus you won’t have to save seed every year.
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