Certain vegetables have a majestic quality to them that requires you to address them with a level of respect. I feel that way about eggplant, and I’m fascinated not only with dishes made with it but with when and how it came to us. Several varieties of eggplant are now available at the market, including the familiar purple oval one and the purple globe eggplant, which is called Tunisian eggplant in Sicily. There are long and thin purple, lavender and white eggplant called Japanese or Chinese eggplant. There are white eggplants that look like large eggs and there is a round, ribbed eggplant called the Italian Rosa Bianco. There are little Thai eggplants the size of marbles. The edible part of the eggplant (Solanum melongena) is the cooked ripe fruit.
Although most botanists believe southeastern India is the place of origin of the eggplant — and some botanists make a case for China, as well as the Malay Peninsula — the place of origin is still unknown. We do know that Arab agriculturists brought eggplant to the Mediterranean from Persia and perhaps from the Arabian Peninsula in the ninth or 10th centuries. The Arabs seem to have discovered the eggplant already growing in Persia shortly after their conquest of that country in 642, although several ancient Arabic names for the eggplant appear to come directly from other Indian names, indicating that the plant may have arrived in the Arabian Peninsula in pre-Islamic times.
A hundred ways to prepare eggplant
The Arabs have long been fond of eggplant, and medieval Arabic cookery manuscripts always have lots of recipes. There is a saying in some parts of the Arab world that a girl should know a hundred ways to prepare eggplant. The eggplant was treated with suspicion at first. The medieval Arab toxicologist Ibn Wahshiya (circa 904) said it was fatal when eaten raw. He was mistaken, but his advice was taken to heart in medieval Europe for centuries.
The earliest reference to eggplant in Europe is from a description in the “Calendar of Cordoba” written in 961 in Islamic Spain where we are told that it is planted in March. There are numerous recipes for eggplant from 13th-century Spain. This is notable because eggplant was a relatively new vegetable to Europe, and this is an early date for its being common. Sicily was one of the first places in Europe where eggplant grew after its introduction by Arab farmers. The first clear reference to the eggplant in Sicily is from 1309, where they are called melingianas and are grown in a garden along with cucumbers and a kind of gourd. Although eggplant was once called “mad apple” (mala insana) because it was thought to produce insanity, this expression is not the etymological root of the Italian and Sicilian words for eggplant, melanzane and mulinciana, respectively. The Italian and Sicilian words derive from the Arabic word for the plant, badhinjan.
Picking the perfect eggplant
When buying eggplant, look for vegetables that are uniformly smooth and colored, without bruises. Squeeze the eggplant gently with a finger and then let go: The eggplant will reform smoothly again if it is fresh. The eggplant should feel heavy. Store eggplant in the refrigerator on a middle shelf, not in the crisper drawer. Many recipes call for salting the slices of eggplant before cooking to leech it of bitter juices. Modern eggplant cultivation has removed its bitterness so it’s not absolutely necessary to do this. On the other hand, I salt eggplant out of habit.
Fittingly, one of the simplest, and intriguing, recipes for eggplant comes from Sicily. It’s called Quaglie di Melanzane, meaning quails made of eggplant. It’s a dish from Palermo where small oval eggplants are sliced while still attached to their stem bases before they are deep-fried. The eggplants are then “fanned” a bit and arranged on a plate to look like quail. In Sicily, they are usually served as a first course or as part of a tavola calda (large tables in Sicilian restaurants filled with various antipasti and other foods) in Sicily
Quaglie di Melanzane
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
Photo: Sicilian Quaglia di Melanzane (eggplant quails)