Eggplant – The Ultimate Botanical Berry
Hard to believe, but it’s almost the end of September – for some, a new school year has commenced, for others it’s the beginning of the new year, but for all in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s the beginning of the end of beautiful summer produce. When I think of summertime, I think of all the gorgeous fruits and vegetables available during the hot weather … squash, watermelon, stone fruit, and of course berries come to mind, like … eggplant? YES!
It always amuses me to know that eggplant, though treated as a vegetable in the culinary world, is actually a botanical berry! As a member of the nightshade family, it shares qualities with both tomatoes and potatoes: tomatoes in that you can eat the seeds and the skin; potatoes in that they are better eaten when cooked.
When I was little, I used to skip through our garden, collecting all the purple flowers because I loved the color and thought they were so pretty! Little did I know that those flowers would become the eggplant I loved so much!
As they grew into the eggplant, my family would never let my siblings or me eat the flesh closest to the stems, because they told us it was poisonous. As it turns out, nightshades contain alkaloids, including solanine, which can be toxic. Solanine protects these plants while they are still developing, which is why the concentration of it can be found near the stem. The good news is that solanine is only toxic when consumed in large quantities, but many people are sensitive to its presence which is one of the reasons for people’s nightshade intolerances.
Though eggplant is not a native plant of Greece, it arrived sometime between the 12th and 13th centuries after coming through the Middle East from India and China. It is unclear which varietal was the original to come to Greece, as many varietals exist today in all different shapes, sizes, and color variations, including a few that are especially Greek!
Variety is the Spice of Life
The varietals available today include:
- Globe/American Eggplant – the traditional larger purple eggplant, a kitchen staple and workhorse.
- Fairytale Eggplant – beautiful with purple and white stripes, not bigger than the palm of a hand, with a sweet, tender flesh.
- Chinese Eggplant – long and lean, with a brighter purple skin, and fewer seeds in the flesh.
- Graffiti Eggplant – similar patterning to the fairytale variety, but larger in size; the thin skin and lesser seed count make these a great kitchen staples, much like the globe variety.
Indian Eggplant – very petite in nature, sometimes called baby eggplant, these look like plums or cherries with a deep purple, ruby-ish color and are wonderful for slow cooking.
- Italian Eggplant – similar in aesthetic to the American globe variety, but a little smaller and sweeter.
- Japanese Eggplant – similar to the Chinese variety, but with a deeper, darker purple hue, and subtly sweet flesh.
- Sicilian Eggplant – sweet and hearty at the same time, sometimes known as Rosa Bianco, these are devoid of the usual ‘bitterness’ found in other varieties across the world.
- Holland Baby Eggplant – similar to the Italian variety but smaller – though not as small as Indian, these are great for roasting and stuffing.
- White/Albino Eggplant – there are multiple varieties of these found throughout the world, but none as sought after as the Santorini White Eggplant from Greece – these are sweet, with thin skin and gorgeous seeds.
You can check out The Life of Loi on PBS, where I make the most amazing melitzanosalata (seen above) with Chef Asterios at the Hotel Grande Bretagne with the Santorini White Eggplants… absolutely incredible!
All of these varietals have their own unique character and best suggested uses, but the truth is, you can do anything with any eggplant!
A Kitchen Workhorse
A culinary staple throughout the world, eggplant is a wonderful absorber of flavor, and fantastic meat substitute. Hearty, yet delicate, it’s a fantastic complement or star of the plate. When roasted and pureed, it adds a luscious, luxurious mouthfeel to any sauce or dish to which it’s added. Use it for appetizers, as the focal point of an entrée, a substantive side, or even a condiment! In fact, in Greece, we even make something called glyka koutaliou (spoon dessert) with baby eggplants!
Eggplant in Greek Cuisine
Quintessential dishes in Greek cuisine include moussaka, a gorgeous, layered casserole with slow cooked ground beef and bechamel (which I make with olive oil instead of butter), papoutsakia, or stuffed eggplant (this can be with meat, but I prefer a vegetable medley), melitzanosalata, or eggplant salad, and varkoules, eggplant boats which are deliciously roasted halves dressed with tomato paste, feta and fresh herbs.
Across the globe, you can find eggplant in every cuisine, from Indian curries, to miso glazed eggplant in Japan, to Chinese stir fry, to eggplant parmesan, to a wonderful Italian caponata – the culinary possibilities are endless.
Good and Good for You
When it comes to eggplant, beyond the culinary versatility, the nutritional and health benefits are vast – high in vitamins A and C, as well as antioxidants known as polyphenols (the same as those that make olive oil good for you!). It is also great for digestion, blood sugar control, and lowering the risk of heart disease!
What’s in a Name?
No matter what you call an eggplant (first referred to as such in the 1750’s in Europe because they looked like goose eggs growing in plant form) – be it melitzana, melinzana, aubergine, brinjal, or badinjan – this magical purple plant is sure to transform your epicurean dreams into reality!
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