A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl (2016)
Eggplant or Aubergine (Solanum melongena)
Plant Family: Solanaceae: nightshade family
Other Names: brinjal, garden egg, Guinea squash, melanzani, melongene
Healing Properties: stimulates appetite; facilitates bowel movement; lowers cholesterol; smooths skin (emollient)
Symbolic Meaning: mysteries of the night, passion, dedicated to Shiva
Planetary Affiliation: moon
Eggplant—or aubergine, as the Brits know it from its French name—is a member of the nightshade family, along with the tomato, potato, and pepper. Unlike these, however, it does not have its origin in tropical or subtropical America; like the cucumber, it hails from India. Dravidian gardeners and other indigenous peoples cultivated this vegetable many thousands of years ago, long before the Vedic-Aryan shepherd nomads made their appearance on the subcontinent. Originally it was a very thorny plant; its fruits were small and bitter, and its gray leaves felt-like on the underside. Today the ripe fruit can grow as heavy as two pounds, and it has since become treasured all over the world.
During the so-called Ghaznavid Incursions in the tenth century, Muslim armies invaded the Indian subcontinent. Not only did they enrich themselves with gold, precious jewels, and spices but—fortunately for us—they also took with them many healing and garden plants previously unknown outside India (Basham 1982, 73). Before long the eggplant established its place in the gardens and eating habits of the entire Islamic Realm from Persia to Andalusia. By the thirteenth century the plant had reached Italy and France; the widely educated scholar Albertus Magnus (~1200-1280) referred to it as “melogena.”
The plant’s long journey is mirrored in its French name. Aubergine derives from the Catalan word “albergina,” which is from the Arabic term “al-badingan,” which in turn is from the Persian batinghan, which itself came from one of the old Indian-Dravidian languages. Today the plant is known in India as “baingan,” and in most of Southeast Asia as “brinjal.”1
The first northern Europeans who encountered egg-plant didn’t trust the strange-looking plant with its white to black-violet egg-shaped fruits any more than they did the Moors then occupying Spain. Besides, it did not escape their attention that eggplant is a nightshade, similar to belladonna or other bittersweet nightshades with which witches and other enemies of Christianity reportedly made diabolical salves. They called this member of the notorious nightshade family “mala insana” or “melzano,” meaning “apple of craziness”—anyone who ate it would surely go insane. In fact, except for the shiny, deep purple fruits—which are almost too beautiful to eat—all of the other parts of the plant are indeed poisonous. The leaves and roots contain solanine alkaloids, which cause nausea, upset stomach, and other ills. North of the Alps only scholars, druggists, and the clergy at first planted eggplant as an oddity, an exotic ornamental plant. But southern Europeans took to it more readily as a vegetable, especially since their climate suits it. European settlers introduced the plant to the Western Hemisphere when they came to America.
Illustration 36. Eggplant blossom (illustration by Molly Conner-Ogorzaly, from B. B. Simpson and M. Conner-Ogorzaly, Economic Botany, 1986, 121)
Today there exist many mouth-watering “aubergine” dishes in the Mediterranean countries. In Greece the eggplant is cut into sticks (militzanes) like French fries, put in the sun, and dried, to be eventually deep-fried in batter until golden brown. The southern French dish ratatouille—a stew of ripe tomatoes, zucchini, green peppers, onions, garlic, sweet basil, and parsley—would not be complete without eggplant. In Italy eggplant is popular sautéed in oil with garlic and parsley, called “al funghetto.” Another tasty Italian dish is alla pizzaiola: eggplant baked with tomatoes and bread crumbs. Japanese eggplant, nasu, is marinated in the salty soy paste miso.
Illustration 37. A young eggplant fruit
Having originated in India, eggplant is an important ingredient in various regional Indian cuisines. In eastern India it is marinated in a mixture of bitter neem leaves and turmeric and then deep-fried in mustard oil. In central India, eggplant is slowly cooked at low temperature generously covered with yogurt. And in northern India a whole vegetable is held over an open flame until the skin is scorched, at which point it’s easily removed; the flesh is then mashed with ginger, green chili pepper, and fresh coriander leaves.
Ayurvedic medicine has recognized many healing aspects of the plant. The unripe fruit is considered both a tonic for the heart and for reducing cholesterol, both ideal for diabetics. It is even considered to be an anticarcinogen. In any case, Charaka, the Hippocrates of Indian medicine, prescribed hot poultices of eggplant for infections, swelling, and tumors. The vegetable is otherwise recommended as an appetizer and a digestive.
Eggplant is as common a vegetable in India as potatoes are in the West. It is found in every garden, rich or poor. Its deep color indicates its dark, heavy nature, the tamasic category in the Indian system of foods; as such it suits the stodgy, earthy, country population, and is thus attributed to the dark, unpredictable Shiva. Just like the simple folk, the god Shiva himself is not considered worthy of the fine foods the Brahmins (priests) eat—even though Shiva is recognized by all as the god of gods, the origin of all being! Indeed, the long, dark vegetable fits well to the linga, the phallic symbol of Shiva, the divine member representing the masculine side of the universe. When the dark god unites in bliss with his Shakti (the universal female energy), the two generate the entire universe; as such the tamasic nightshade plant belongs to the mysterious night, the deep, dark world of sensuality and passion.
In Bengali poetry the deep purple aubergine symbolizes the summer sky at the moment, shortly after the sunset, when night comes. The white eggplant symbolizes, in contrast, the hazy morning sky just before the summer sun rises.
CULTIVATION: Eggplant can be cultivated under the same conditions as its cousin the tomato. Above all, the plant needs warmth and should be planted in the garden and covered to protect it from the cold for the first week or two. Put down a thick mulch to both preserve moisture and even soil temperatures. The plant needs four warm months of summer in order to become full sized (three feet), blossom, and produce fruit. In cold regions one must, just like with tomatoes, sow the seeds in a greenhouse in late February or early March— about ten weeks before planting time. The plant needs rich soil with plentiful good compost and water. It takes well to phosphates and can be fertilized several times during the season with watered-down liquid manure from chickens or doves. The vegetable should be harvested before the seeds are fully ripe; otherwise it will become bitter. Potato bugs like the plant almost better than they like potatoes, but otherwise there are few insects that find the plant attractive.
SOIL: Eggplant likes well-drained loam (between medium and sandy) that is rich in nutrients, as it is a heavy feeder.
Eggplant with Pear Mustard ✵ 4 SERVINGS
EGGPLANT: 4 small eggplants ✵ 2 tablespoons sesame seeds ✵ 2 tablespoons olive oil ✵ herbal salt ✵ ground nutmeg ✵ black pepper ✵ 1 cup alfalfa sprouts ✵ PEAR MUSTARD: 1 ripe pear ✵ 4 tablespoons mustard
EGGPLANT: Poke the eggplants with a fork a few times on both sides. Bake in a pan in the oven at 350 °F (175 °C) until the skins are wrinkled and easily peeled off. (Alternatively, roast the eggplants over hot embers: holding them over the heat by the stems, rotate them to roast evenly until the skin turns black and is easily peeled off; the flesh should be soft.) Remove the charcoaled eggplant skin. Put the remaining flesh in a bowl. Add the sesame seeds and olive oil and mash with a fork until well mixed. Add herbal salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste.
PEAR MUSTARD: Cube the pear. In a blender, purée the pear and the mustard.
Arrange the alfalfa sprouts on a serving dish. Put the eggplant mixture on alfalfa sprouts and serve with the pear mustard.
Fried Eggplant with Herbal Yogurt ✵ 4 SERVINGS
EGGPLANT: 4 eggplants ✵ 2 garlic cloves, chopped ✵ 1 teaspoon lemon juice ✵ herbal salt ✵ pepper ✵ 4 tablespoons flour ✵ 4 tablespoons olive oil ✵ YOGURT SAUCE: ¼ cup fresh herbs (such as rosemary, thyme, parsley), finely chopped ✵ 1 tablespoon olive oil ✵ 1 cup plain yogurt ✵ garlic cloves to taste ✵ herbal salt
Cut the eggplants into slices (about ½-inch thick). Place them in a pan. Add the garlic and lemon juice and let rest in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
Sauté the herbs in the olive oil until crisp. Let them cool. Put the yogurt in a bowl; mix in the herbs. Add garlic and herbal salt to taste.
Put the flour in a small bowl. Dredge the eggplant slices on both sides in the flour; season with herbal salt and pepper. Fry in olive oil until golden brown. Serve with the yogurt sauce.