Originally from Burma or India, where a large number of varieties continue to thrive, eggplants were already being cultivated in China in ancient times.
They were introduced to the Mediterranean region by Arab seafarers in the 9th century. They were mentioned in an 11th-century medical treatise under the name of al betigenn, which became alberengena in Spanish and aubergine in French.
Cultivated in Spain since the Middle Ages, the eggplant was introduced into Italy in the 15th century, then into southern France. However, doctors and botanists attributed evil properties to it.
It crossed the Loire during the French Revolution, taken by the southern volunteers. Under the Directory, Parisian gourmets were treated to it in a renowned restaurant: Les Frères Provençaux (where Escoffier would later become the head chef). But it was the market gardener Decouffé who definitively introduced it to Paris in 1825.
The eggplant at that time was the size of an egg, hence the English name "eggplant". It subsequently spread around the world wherever there was a warm climate.
Male eggplants are better because they do not have seeds. They can be distinguished by their more rounded and pointed shape.
Their skin should be taut – not wrinkled – and firm and shiny. The stalks and leaves should not be dried. A soft eggplant is a sign that it is not fresh: it is over-ripe and more bitter.
You should always choose a medium eggplant: those that are too large have floury flesh.
Eggplants are sold fresh, by weight.
Preserved: in oil, stuffed with nuts (makdous from Lebanon), grilled and preserved in oil; roasted and mashed (eggplant caviar).
Frozen, sliced, and broiled.
Young eggplants are not peeled. They are easy to braise.
Eggplants can be prepared in myriad ways: stuffed, sauteed, baked, battered, au gratin, and pureed and served cold – this is the renowned caviar d’aubergine (eggplant caviar).
It is one of the vegetables in ratatouille and is the base of moussaka.
In Lebanon, mutabal dip is made from grilled eggplant mixed with tahini, garlic, and a little lemon juice, and is served as an accompaniment for broiled beef and lamb.
Catalan escalivada is made up of eggplant strips roased in olive oil.
In Turkey, eggplant is stuffed with ground meat (karniyarik), or with tomato and onion (imam bayildi).
In Japan, eggplant (nasu) is often steamed, then eaten with miso soup.
Eggplants can keep for several days at 3–5ºC.
They can also be cured in salt for 24 hours, then soaked in vinegar for 12 hours. Once they are well dried, they can be stored in jars with olive oil, garlic, and oregano.
Eggplants are low in calories, but, being the oil sponges they are, they lose this quality when cooked. They contain minerals, antioxidant carotenes, and B group vitamins. They are poor source of vitamin C.
There are many varieties of eggplant, in all sizes and different colors, ranging from white to deep – almost black – purple, to yellow, green, and orange.
The most common varieties in France are:
Berinda, medium length, oval, deep purple; Dobrix, medium length, black; Dourga, short and white; Giniac, long, deep purple; Miléda, medium length, tubular, almost black; Mini-aubergine, elongated, very small, very deep purple; Violette/Noire de Barbentane, long, purple or black.
Outside France, important varieties include:
Berenjena de Almagro (PGI, Spain), dark green, rounded or elongated; Ping Tung Long (China), long and thin, deep purple; Kamonasu, Maru-Nasu, Naga-Nasu, Misu-Nasu (Japan); Hybrid Thai Long Green (Thailand); Hybrid Bharata Star and Hybrid Southern Pink (India).
Eggplants are available all year round thanks to imports from Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Israel, and a number of African countries.
Nevertheless, in Europe the true eggplant season takes place between May and September. Miniature eggplants are not available until mid-June.