Sietsema: A Short History of the Eggplant


Our Man Sietsema is about to drop some knowledge. He’s been alone in the kitchen with an eggplant, thinking deep thoughts about this veggie, which is in season right now.


Eggplant is native to India, where it has been cultivated for 4000 years. Known as aubergine in France and England, the plant is a member of the Solanaceae family, which includes such other nightshades as potatoes and tomatoes. As with tomatoes, it might be more properly called a fruit. But why is it called eggplant? While a pear-shaped purple type has long been dominant in this country, dozens of cultivars exist in colors ranging from off-white to streaky pink to blackish purple. And, yes, some are the size, shape, and color of eggs, leading them to be called “garden eggs” in Africa. The photo shows the varieties collected in a single afternoon at the Union Square Farmers Market.

Arab traders brought the eggplant to Europe and Africa around 1400. The vegetable was introduced into the United States by Thomas Jefferson, who either got the seeds from France, or from slaves recently arrived from Africa — who did all the actual gardening at Monticello. Jefferson experimented with eggplant, and his 1812 journal lists both purple and white eggplants among nearly 350 crops. Jefferson apparently had no idea what to do with the vegetable, but by the 1840s, it was a prominent part of the southern diet, roasted and stuffed with either breadcrumbs or rice.

It wasn’t until immigrants from the Middle East and Italy brought their recipes for eggplant to America late in the 19th century that it began to be a popular vegetable, though its popularity was still confined mainly to the East Coast and the South throughout much of the 20th century. Compared with other vegetables, eggplant takes a long time to grow, which is why it doesn’t appear in farmers markets until September. The selection of seven seen above includes heirloom varieties from Italy and Japan. While East Asians prefer slender elongated varieties, Middle Easterners like the more rotund types, which can be roasted to yield baba ganoush, or the copious flesh diced to make salads.

The most famous Turkish recipe is imam bayildi — sliced eggplant roasted with a topping of tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil. The name translates “the imam fainted.” As the story goes, the imam (a Muslim religious leader) lost consciousness either because the dish tasted so good, or because the olive oil used in the recipe was so expensive. The Spanish prefer small white eggplants, and often pickle them so that they look and feel like pickled eggs. Thais also use eggplants the size of chicken eggs; however, theirs are green and streaky like watermelons. Sichuanese stir-fry eggplant cubes with garlic, hot chiles, and Sichuan peppercorns.

Southern Italians like eggplants as much as Turks and Chinese; in fact, when a pasta is described as Sicilian-style, it often contains diced eggplant in addition to tomatoes and mozzarella. The eggplant parmigiana hero is certainly one of the highest attainments of Italian-American cuisine. The word for eggplant in Italian is melanzana, which derives from the Latin expression “mala insana,” which means “apple of madness.” And, while we’re inordinately fond of eggplants, we can’t quite say that they drive us insane.