History and Culture of the Eggplant

Eggplants have a rich and vibrant, if somewhat controversial history, particularly in their medieval European incarnation. From their Asian and Middle Eastern roots as a staple to their status as possible causes for madness in England (a few short centuries ago), eggplants live up to their unique appearance. This appearance still invites speculation. But today, investigation into this exotic fruit is mainly into eggplant's possible uses in the kitchen and ancillary health benefits rather than the superstition-laden mysteriousness that once surrounded them.

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Eggplants were first cultivated in India approximately 4000 years ago, where they were widely used in a variety of dishes, both cooked and raw. In this region the eggplants harvested were of the recognizable dark color and distinctive shape. As other cultures adopted eggplants into their diets new varieties were developed, including those that were white, tan, and other light shades with varying shapes.

As the cultivation of eggplants migrated east in the 4th century, Asian cultures found a variety of uses for the oddly-shaped food in a number of dishes - some of these recipes are still used today. Around 500 A.D. eggplants first appeared in the writings of China. Once they caught on, eggplants enjoyed great popularity in China. As East met West, the Moors and Turks brought back this strange new food to their own territories.

As knowledge of eggplant cultivation and use spread through southern Europe, the vegetable (technically it is a fruit in botanical terms) began to collect a rather compelling reputation as an aphrodisiac. It was often referred to as the “apple of love” which is a much more favorable distinction than it would enjoy as it made its way into northeastern Europe.

In much of Europe, the eggplant is called an aubergine. A few centuries ago northern European people had some rather superstitious ideas about it, including the perception that it could produce insanity — a myth that led to it also being called the “Mad Apple.” It is not surprising that some would attach strange or mystical properties to eggplants given their odd shape and color. It was partly their botanical relationship to deadly nightshade that was a cause for concern. Despite the relationship, there is nothing poisonous about the eggplant. It has received some “bad press” in some regions, just as the tomato (a cousin) did.

Germany was something of an “early adopter” of the eggplant, despite its mysterious reputation, and it was here that the cultivation of new European varieties flourished. Purple, brown, and off-white varieties began infiltrating medieval kitchens in the 16th century. During the Renaissance, eggplants also gained popularity in Naples, perhaps because it was located on the southern portion of the Italian peninsula with easy access to the trade routes to the Middle East.

Noted horticulturalist, author, and president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, brought the eggplant into wide recognition in early America. Although technically the Spanish did bring it with them during the age of exploration. It was not before Jefferson’s work that they enjoyed any widespread acceptance.

Today, eggplants form the core of several international dishes but have never received the recognition of other vegetables. While myth and superstition might have receded into the past, what remains is a lack of awareness about how to use eggplants to create exciting recipes. This is a versatile and diverse fruit (even if we still call them vegetables), and their history is still evolving as we find new ways to blend them into an increasingly internationally inspired diet.

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