By Nina Furstenau
Eggplant, like the tomato, is connected to the poisonous nightshade family, and that dark history was exposed as it came west, likely from India and other parts of Asia. Name-calling was rampant: mad apples, apple of Sodom, apple of madness, and others. Physicians and botanists named the plant Solanum insanum and accused the eggplant of causing fevers and epileptic seizures—even madness.
Finally, botanist Linnaeus thought it was all a bit much (people did enjoy the taste, after all) and tempered the name. Now, it is known as Solanum melongena—a bad but soothing apple. I agree the leaves are to be left alone, but really.
Together, eggplant varieties make a cornucopia: our familiar American one-pounder Black Beauty eggplant, slim Japanese Ichiban, striped Sicilian, smallish Indian, African Scarlet. All delectable. In most recipes, any variety of eggplant—dark purple, lavender, white, red, green, striped, fat or slender—can be used. Smaller eggplants can be less bitter, but they’re not as hearty either.
Here is writer Faye Levy’s rundown of the common types of eggplant:
Italian eggplants: Smaller, slimmer versions of the usual deep purple globe eggplants; useful for sautéing if you want small slices.
Japanese and Chinese eggplants: Slim eggplants of zucchini size and shape. Japanese eggplants are dark purple. Often the Chinese eggplants are pale purple, with white skin just below the cap. Both have a slightly more delicate flavor than large eggplants and take only about half as long to cook.
Egg-shaped white eggplants: These are attractive when raw, but sometimes, their peel is tough.
Indian eggplants, small and egg-shaped with purple skins, can be found in some markets.
Thai eggplants are very small, round, and green and are usually cooked whole.
Eggplant season lasts through the first frost, and area ethnic markets are a good year-round source of more unusual varieties. A tasty eggplant dip for your next summer party from my family recipe store is bharta, a favorite Bengali dish made by roasting the eggplant until very soft and mixing the flesh with tomatoes and onions. Try it with pita chips.
1 large or two medium eggplants
3 tablespoons oil
1/4 medium onion very finely chopped
1/2 medium tomato very finely chopped
1/2 green chili, very finely chopped (or to taste)
Salt to taste
1/2 lime, squeezed (or to taste)
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, finely chopped (if desired)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Wash and dry the eggplant(s). Rub olive oil on the skin and wrap in aluminum foil. Bake the eggplant for one hour or until collapsed and very soft. Remove from oven, scrape the flesh from the skin, and mash. Heat a pan on the stovetop with the remaining oil. Add the roasted eggplant, onion, tomato, green chili, and salt. Stir, and cook for approximately five minutes. Add lime juice, and garnish with chopped fresh cilantro leaves if desired.
Nina Furstenau teaches food writing in the Science and Agricultural Journalism program at the University of Missouri. She is the author of "Savor Missouri, River Hill Country Food and Wine" and "Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland," In addition to this blog, she writes “A Spiced Life,” for the Columbia Tribune.