Real Food Encyclopedia | Eggplant
To most Americans, eggplant (Solanum melongena) means the classic variety grown in the U.S.: the globe eggplant. With deep purple skin and a round base, their fat bodies and meaty texture makes them ideal for grilling and roasting. But they are grown all over the world in a variety of shapes and sizes. The most common eggplant in Thailand is a variety appropriately called Thai eggplant (or Lao eggplant), globe-shaped and green-and-white striped. The purple Japanese eggplant is long and slender, and great for pan frying. Striped Togo eggplant (a.k.a., Ethiopian eggplant) are small and oval and turn bright orange with green stripes when ripe.
Fun facts about eggplant:
- Eggplant was originally termed “mad apple” in Europe, in keeping with the unimaginative European propensity to name every vegetable some variation of “apple” (tomato = “love apple,” potato = “Devil’s apple,” etc.).
- Despite the word “eggplant” being synonymous with a deep purple color, some early cultivars were, in fact, white and egg-shaped.
- Eggplant is called aubergine in most of the rest of the English-speaking world.
- Eggplant is technically a fruit.
What to look for when buying eggplant
Eggplant come in many different colors and sizes, from the common large, teardrop-shaped purple variety to long and skinny Asian varietals. Regardless of size, shape or color of the fruit, look for glossy, unblemished skin and a very firm texture when (gently) squeezed. Larger varieties tends to be more bitter than smaller-sized specimens.
Sustainability of eggplant
International production of eggplant is highly concentrated between China and India — the two countries produce over 83 percent of the world’s supply. Chinese production of the fruit is environmentally problematic, because monocropping large amounts of chemical fertilizer and liberal application of pesticides is standard.
Indian production is also not without environmental controversy. Between 2006 and 2009, Mahyco, an Indian seed company, in partnership with Monsanto (both already infamous for creating and marketing the controversial genetically engineered (GE) Bt cotton in India), developed a GE variety of Bt eggplant designed to resist common eggplant-destroying insects. However, after scientists, farmers and the general public raised concerns, along with widespread protests, a moratorium on Bt eggplant was called in India in 2010. This moratorium appears to be indefinite — or at the very least, has yet to be lifted — and seems to have set a precedent, potentially halting the development of other GE fruits and vegetables in India. However, the crop was approved for use in Bangladesh in 2021, and is widely grown by farmers there.
Although U.S. production of the fruit is globally negligible, in states such as Florida, the crop is often monocropped and a number of pesticides are used to control common pests and fungi. Check with your local farmer to learn about his/her methods to be sure.
Eggplant is a warm-weather plant, so in most parts of the country it is only available locally in mid-summer through early fall. Super fresh is best; the fresher the eggplant, the less bitter its flavor.
China leads the world in eggplant cultivation, followed by India, Egypt, Iran and Turkey. In the U.S., it is a specialty crop, and the major states for cultivation are Florida, California and New Jersey.
Eggplant doesn’t like the cold — it’s a tropical plant, after all — and so doesn’t keep well in the refrigerator for longer than 2 to 4 days, depending on how soon after harvest it is purchased. Longer storage equals bitterness. If you plan to cook it right away, leave it out on the counter.
- The fruit oxidizes (turns brown when exposed to air) fairly quickly, so cut it right before you plan to cook it. A squeeze of lemon juice will help stop the browning if you must prep in advance.
- The food scientist Harold McGee confirms what Italian grandmas have been saying: salting it does, indeed, keep the fruit from soaking up too much oil in the cooking process, by partially collapsing its cell walls.
Eggplant is a multitalented fruit, equally at home on the grill as in the deep fryer. The most famous eggplant dishes tend to fall into one of four categories: the pureed (see: baba ganoush and baingan bharta), the fried (see: eggplant parm), the stewed (see: ratatouille) and the stuffed. Their classic culinary companions are other members of the nightshade family, including tomatoes and peppers, both sweet and hot. The fruit also pairs spectacularly well with garlic and onions, and is a natural with basil, oregano and parsley.
Eggplant can be blanched and frozen, but the result will be pretty mushy (which could be fine for recipes like baba ganoush where it is pureed anyway). Serious Eats has lots of other ideas for preserving an abundance of eggplant, including making and freezing dishes like caponata and making an eggplant pickle that can be canned or stored long-term in the refrigerator.
Eggplant contain small amounts of manganese, thiamin, Vitamin B6, Vitamin K and folate, and they are fairly high in fiber and low in calories. The skin — especially purple varietals — has potent antioxidant properties, some of which may even help with the control of type 2 diabetes and hypertension.
Top photo by Carlos Neto/Adobe Stock.