The fruit of a plant originating in India, the eggplant is a berry that is consumed like a vegetable. Also called “aubergine”, it has been known in Asia for over 2,500 years, having been cultivated in China since around 500 B.C. The Arabs and Persians presumably brought it to Africa prior to the Middle Ages, and it was from there that it was introduced into Italy in the 14th century. Because the first varieties of eggplant were very bitter, Europeans initially valued it for its ornamental qualities. They also believed it could cause insanity. Years of cultivation and crossbreeding of the eggplant have greatly improved its flavor. Today eggplant is cultivated mainly in China, Turkey, Japan, Egypt and Italy.
There are a number of different varieties of eggplant; most prefer warm climates, but some varieties have been adapted to temperate zones as well. The most common variety both in North America and Europe is the deep purple, oval eggplant that resembles a large pear. It grows on a 3-foot-high plant that bears beautiful purple-blue flowers. Several other varieties, often classified as Asian varieties, are also now available. Some can be as small as an egg, others are long and slender, and some resemble a bunch of grapes. The yellowish white flesh of the eggplant is spongy and contains small brownish edible seeds.
Eggplant is delicious hot or cold and can be prepared in a wide variety of ways. It is excellent stuffed, roasted, au gratin, puréed, as a casserole or on brochettes. It is an essential ingredient in Asian and Mediterranean cuisine, where it is often prepared with tomatoes, garlic and olive oil, as in ratatouille, eggplant spread or moussaka.
This ratatouille is delicious hot or cold and is a good side dish for grilled meat or fish.