Experts can presume where a fruit or vegetable made the transition from plant to crop based on where the largest collections of wild strains are located. This methodology informs us the tomato’s homeland is in Western South America. The potato comes from roughly the same geographic area in Peru. Another way to track a plant’s origin is through language.
Following the etymological path, it appears the eggplant came from India. The Sanskrit, Vatin–gana, seems to be the linguistic Ur-designation for our plant. Translated as, ‘pass-wind,’ eggplants were thought to either cause or cure the passing of gas. Experts, as is their wont, disagree about the meaning. As the crop spread westward, it became badinage in Persian, badinjan in Arabic. Arabic conquest of the Iberian peninsula brought both the eggplant and a new word, berengena to Spain. Al-beregngena became the French aubergine.
A somewhat compelling case can be made that the eggplant was domesticated in SE Asia. Perhaps it had a similar path to the tomato, which was ignored in South America, but was extensively cultivated after it arrived in the Valley of Mexico. It’s possible the eggplant was co-cultivated in two locations. We endorse the history that begins as a fart designation.
The berenjena (modern spelling) came with the Spanish to the Americas, but the word eggplant didn’t show up in usage until the second half of the 18th Century. We know eggplant was grown as a crop or curiosity at Jefferson’s Monticello. Jefferson’s slave and half-brother-in-law, James Hemings, would have been familiar with the crop from his training in French kitchens. Our nascent country and culture revered French cuisine, yet the eggplant failed to win over the hearts and minds of our founders.
Did the eggplant fail to catch on in the US because it demands hot weather? Was its dietary obscurity caused by the fact it’s a member of the deadly nightshade family? Was eggplant ignored because the food was considered, in the words of one early cookbook author, ‘too ethnic?’ Or was it because the plant is devoid of nutrients and flavors? Moussaka, baba ghanouj, and ratatouille’s deliciousness aren’t derived from an intense eggplant flavor. Our favorite household preparation is eggplant parmesan, or as we like to call it, chicken-fried-eggplant. This recipe isn’t a winner because of the sensual eggplant flavor: It rocks because it’s breaded then deep-fried.
Eggplant is in season and for those who don’t want to spend a few hours salting, rinsing, drying, dredging, dipping, coating and deep-frying, try grilling it. Grilled eggplant and fresh mozzarella make a killer sandwich. Add tomato sauce or sprinkle balsamic vinegar if you’re adding slices of tomatoes. Salting sliced eggplant began as a way to negate some of the bitterness of older varieties. Nowadays, salting serves the same function as a dry rub, allowing the seasoning to penetrate the veg, one that needs flavoring help.