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.

| Summer 2014

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.

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