Aubergine, eggplant, brinjal, melanzana, berenjena or even the mad apple; the many names of this plant represent the long history of how it spread around the world. It is the only vegetable, (well fruit really) in the nightshade family that does not come from the Americas. The aubergine was first cultivated in tropical Asia around 500 AD, from there it spread to India and was brought to the Mediterranean by the Arabs and finally reached France and England in the 16th Century. By far the most common varieties now grown in Europe are the large deep purple and black varieties but there are hundreds more and they come in all shapes, sizes and colours: black, purple, yellow, green and white. Long and thin, short and round, from massive ones weighing up to 2kg to tiny ones you can pop in your mouth whole. The small white egg shaped variety is where they got the name ‘eggplant’ and they were often just grown for decoration.
To salt or not to salt?
Just as there are hundreds of different varieties there are hundreds of different ways to cook aubergine. To understand how to cook aubergine it is good to understand its structure. The flesh is like a sponge with thousands of pockets of air, when cooked these pockets break and the flesh collapses and shrinks and you end up with a fine silky mush. If you cook aubergines in fat they quickly soak it all up like a sponge and there are many dishes that utilise this to create a very rich flavour. If you don’t want the aubergine to soak up all the oil it is best to salt it first. Salting is done by slicing the aubergine as required, then sprinkling it with salt and leaving it for an hour. The salt draws out the liquid from the aubergine and breaks down the cell walls so there is less space for the oil to be soaked into. After an hour quickly rinse off the salt and give the aubergine a little squeeze to remove as much liquid as possible without losing the shape. Now when you fry them they will take on a lovely brown colour on the outside without turning into an oily floppy mess. Originally salting was said to draw out the bitter juices but the aubergines grown in Europe have long since had the bitterness bred out of them, so the only reason to salt them is for the texture and is by no means essential. Another favourite way to cook aubergines is to grill them whole, check out our recipe below for the rich smoky grilled aubergine dip baba ganoush.
Because aubergines are a tropical plant they don’t actually store that well in the refrigerator. The ideal temperature to store them is around 10ºC and out of the sunlight. But if you don’t have a cool dark place and your house is on the warm side the fridge is probably the best place for them just make sure you use them within a few days.
Organic and GM aubergines
Aubergines are one of the vegetables that often appear on the ‘don’t need to buy organic’ lists. However according to whatsonmyfood.org the USDA has found residues of 18 pesticides including known carcinogens, hormone disruptors, reproductive disruptors and honeybee toxins in aubergines. The plants are prone to pests and farmers use a large amount of pesticides to combat them, sometimes spraying the plants up to 80 times per growing cycle. So, as we always recommend, unless you know where they come from and how they are grown, always get organic.
In 2011 India became the first country to file a lawsuit against Monsanto for genetic piracy, claiming that Monsanto stole the genes of 16 native varieties of brinjal (as aubergines are called in India) to create it’s genetically engineered variety, Bt Brinjal. Although criminal charges were never enforced by the Indian government they did place a 10 year ban on using and testing the genetically engineered plants. In 2013 Bangladesh became the first country to approve the Bt Brinjal plants for production. The genetically modified plants are still being tested in the Philippines, where aubergines are the countries primary crop, and they are expected to be approved for commercial production in the next few years. As you can imagine this is a highly controversial topic and the media are watching the results closely.
The Mad Apple
Aubergines are high in fibre and low in calories (unless you deep fry them of course). They are high in antioxidants and although not particularly high in any one area they have a good overall balance of vitamins and minerals. Like all the nightshade family, aubergines contain the alkaloid solanine. Solanine is one of the plants natural defences and a very small percentage of people are allergic to it. If eaten in extremely large quantities (at least 12 aubergines per person) it can cause nausea, diarrhea and dizziness. This is perhaps why during the Renaissance people believed aubergines could cause insanity and they were given the title ‘mad apple’. Cooking aubergines drastically reduces the solanine content and unless you are allergic to the nightshade family there really is no reason to not enjoy this wonderful bright vegetable in all it’s glorious guises.
Baba Ganoush – A classic smooth and smokey dip
1 medium aubergine
1 heaped teaspoon of tahini (sesame paste)
1 crushed clove of garlic
juice of 1/2 lemon
pinch of salt
It’s worth noting that grilling the aubergine this way gives the dip it’s signature rich smokiness, it could also be done on a barbecue or an open wood fire. If you don’t have a gas hob you can do it under the grill in your oven but it wont have quite the same smokey flavour.
Place a wire rack over the top of one of your gas hobbs, preferably the largest one as that will spread the heat evenly over the aubergine. Put the aubergine on the wire rack and set the flame to medium/low. Leave the aubergine there for around 8 minutes (depending on the size of your aubergine and the strength of the flame) Once it has really charred the bottom of the aubergine and it is starting to burst at the skin rotate the aubergine a quarter turn. Repeat this on all sides of the aubergine until the aubergine is completely charred and soft in the middle. Test it with a knife or skewer to make sure it is completely cooked through. This is a slightly messy process and one of the keys is to move the aubergine as little as possible, so be sure it is properly cooked on each side before rotating. Once it is cooked, set on the side to cool completely, then gently peel off all of the charred skin.
Now put the aubergine flesh into a small food processor or a jug for a stick blender, then add the tahini, garlic, the lemon juice and a good pinch of salt. Whizz it all up together until it is silky and smooth. Taste for seasoning. Remember that because of the way garlic works, the garlic flavour will keep getting stronger over the first half an hour, so be careful not to over do it. Garnish it with the a sprinkle of sumac and serve.
Harold McGee – On Food and Cooking
Links to brinjal bt case:
Links for organic/ pesticide use: