Why we love the aubergine!

Refugees of the North East #3: Yvette

One of our favourite vegetables at The Comfrey Project is the aubergine (aka melongene, garden egg, mad apple, guinea squash or egg plant).

This humble vegetable is however, in botanical terms, a berry and belongs to a family of plants called solanum melongena.

Other genus from this family are potatoes, tomatoes and bell peppers, as well as one of the most poisonous plants in the world; deadly nightshade.

We think aubergine was originally domesticated in India and Bangladesh from the wild nightshade, the thorn or bitter apple.

The plant is a delicate, tropical perennial, often cultivated as a tender or half hardy annual in temperate climates. It grows 40 to 150cm tall, with large, coarsely lobed leaves.

The flower is white to purple, with five-lobed corollas and yellow stamens. The fruit has a deep purple, glossy skin, encasing cream coloured, sponge-like flesh dotted with small, edible seeds.

In addition to the classic purple variety, aubergines are available in other colours including lavender, jade green, orange and yellow and in a range of shapes and sizes.

The most popular variety of aubergine looks like a large, pear-shaped egg, hence the American name eggplant.

It has many other names, all ultimately derived from the Arabic al-bainjan (Persian: bademjan, Albanian: patrixhan, Turkish: patlıcan, Bosnian: patlidzan).

In the western Mediterranean al-bainjan became Spanish berenjena, Catalan as alberginia, and Portuguese beringela. The Catalan form was borrowed by French as aubergine, which was then borrowed into British English.

Throughout Asia and Africa, the fruit is called brinjal, from the Portuguese.

The plant is native to the Indian Subcontinent and has been cultivated in southern and eastern Asia since prehistory.

The first known written record of the plant is found in Qi Min Yao Shu, an ancient Chinese agricultural journal, completed in 544CE.

The numerous Arabic and North African names for it, along with the lack of the ancient Greek and Roman names, indicate it was introduced throughout the Mediterranean area by the Arabs in the early Middle Ages.

The aubergine is unrecorded in England until the 16th century. An English botany book in 1597 stated:

  • ‘This plant herewith in Egypt almost everywhere … bringing forth fruit of the bigness of a great cucumber … We have had the same in our London gardens, where it had borne flowers, but the winter approaching before the time of ripening, it perished: not withstanding it came to bear fruit of the bigness of a goose egg one extraordinary temperate year … but never to the full ripeness.’

Because of the plant’s relationship with the solanaceae (nightshade) family, the fruit was at one time believed to be extremely poisonous (although flowers and leaves can be poisonous if consumed in large quantities due to the presence of solanine).

The raw fruit can have a bitter taste, but becomes tender when cooked and develops a rich, complex flavour.

Many recipes advise salting, rinsing and draining of the sliced fruit (known as degorging), to soften it and to reduce the amount of fat absorbed during cooking, but mainly to remove the bitterness.

It’s the seeds that can have a bitter taste because they contain nicotinoidalkaloids.

If the seeds are dark in colour it means nicotinoidalkaloids are more concentrated and the fruit will be bitter. Aubergine is a relative of tobacco, so there will be a trace of nicotine present in the fruit. However we would have to consume huge quantities of aubergine (on average 9kg) to digest the same amount of nicotine as a cigarette.

On the other hand aubergine addiction is my weakness. I’m hooked on the smokey, gooey texture that instantly takes me to the sweet smelling hills of Persia, Turkey and Bosnia (my home country).

It gives me an out-of-this-world feeling; calm and relaxed.

You only have to try kashk e bademjan or a borany bademjan made by our Persian and Afghan cooks at the Project. Alternatively, you can make the dishes yourself by following the recipes from our Cooking from the Heart cookbook.

Aubergine is used in the cuisine of many countries. It is often stewed, burned, grilled and mashed. It can be preserved and pickled too.

As the modern aubergine owes its origin to the wild version (bitter and unpleasant to taste) for centuries they were enjoyed more as decorative garden plants in the flower borders. I’m so grateful to the first person who attempted to turn this unpleasant fruit into something more palatable.

Aubergines are available fresh all around the year. When buying aubergines look out for healthy looking, firm, shiny, bright-coloured fruits that feel heavy and solid. Take a close look at the stalk: if it is stout, firm and green; that means the fruit is fresh.

Avoid those shrivelled, soft-in-hand and wrinkled fruit, with surface cuts or bruises. Always avoid over-mature, old-stock, and sunken eggplants. They taste bitter and unappetizing.

At home, they can be kept in a cool place for use within a day or two, but ideally should be stored inside the fridge for few days only.

I never have any issues in storing them; in our house they just go!

Enjoy your Aubergines.

Article by Sanja Ratkusic