eggplants

Hello, I’m Andrea Castillo and this is Seasonal, a newsletter that connects you to the Bay Area food system, one fruit and vegetable at a time. Seasonal comes out twice per month, and each post highlights the most interesting aspects of one seasonal fruit or vegetable grown and harvested around the Bay Area. Find me on Instagram at @seasonalbayarea or e-mail me at seasonal@substack.com to share your feedback and suggestions, I’d love to hear from you. If you’d like to unsubscribe, click the gray unsubscribe link at the bottom of this post.

Today we nerd out on eggplants (available June-October).

If there is one word I would choose to associate with eggplant, it would be mystery. I realized this when I was hanging out with my husband’s aunt in her backyard (at a safe social distance, of course), learning about a red kind of celery she was growing and admiring her raised bed tomatoes soaking in the sun. She is a skilled gardener and linguist and when I mentioned I was going to write about eggplants, I asked whether tomatoes and eggplants are both nightshades. She said they are indeed and then I wondered… What does nightshade mean anyway? Is it the shade caused by a bright moon that somehow tomatoes and eggplants thrive in? Didn’t tomatoes (and I assume eggplants) need plenty of sunshine to grow? If so… then, why night… shade? With a puzzled look, she told me she did not know so I promised to dig a little deeper into the strange nightshade name. 

a shady past

So here we are, exploring eggplant mysteries, which start with the family this fruit is in: the nightshade family. (Yup, fruit! Similar to peas, the eggplant is a fruit—botanically speaking—but people use it as a vegetable.) To keep plant names tidy and organized (aka taxonomy), science resorts to Latin. Eggplant is in the Solanaceae family, a name that comes from the Solanum genus. But the origins of the word Solanum are a bit obscure: it could have been derived from the Latin word solare, which means solace or comfort, or sol, meaning sun (because these are sun-loving plants), or perhaps even sululu, in Akkadian, the ancient language of Mesopotamia, which means happy and may refer to the narcotic effects of some Solanum plants like belladonna or angel’s trumpets, an extremely toxic and common plant that grows throughout the Bay Area. So how do we go from a word that could mean solace, sun, or happy to… nightshade? 

Instead of Latin, German—a parent of the English language—may offer us better clues. Nightshade is related to the German word nachtschaden, which translates to “night troubles.” Solanaceae plants were well known for their potential curative, narcotic, and toxic powers, and Solanaceae brews treated nightmares, nocturnal restlessness, and night sweats. In short, illnesses associated with darkness. As the usage of nachtschaden evolved in 16th century Europe, instead of describing night illnesses, nachtschaden became the name of the plants used to cure those troubles. Because eggplants had more of an aphrodisiac association in medieval and renaissance Europe, it is likely that night terror medicine relied on more toxic nightshades like mandrake and belladonna. Still, there was no denying eggplants, mandrakes, and belladonna were all related and they all got roped into the nightshade family.  

African roots

A more challenging eggplant mystery scientists are still trying to sort out is the confusing evolution of the eggplant. Depending on which geneticist, biologist, botanist, or archaeologist you ask, way before they made their way to Europe, eggplants originated in Asia and were first domesticated in China… or originated in Africa and were then domesticated in Asia. Until a couple of years ago, researchers supported the former hypothesis: eggplants originated in Asia. But a research group from Finland didn’t quite buy that explanation, especially because the scientific community recently discovered that many of the wild ancestors of the domesticated eggplant grow in the savannahs of Africa. Using DNA sequencing as evidence, the Finnish research team came up with a new idea: eggplants originated in eastern Africa, made their way east towards tropical Asia, and Asian civilizations later domesticated a relative of the wild African eggplant. Still, it is not entirely clear how the eggplant made its way east to Asia and where it was first domesticated.

Other than curiosity, why would the eggplant origin story matter? Researchers have good incentives to understand eggplant ancestry: this knowledge will help us figure out which eggplant traits enable the plant to fight off pests and grow in harsh conditions like drought-stricken lands. Eggplants are among the world’s top 25 crops and as we wrestle with the impacts of climate change, solving the eggplant domestication mystery can lead us to a more secure food future.

eggplants are not bitter and other misconceptions

Even though we don’t know how humans domesticated eggplants, we do know that one of the most popular eggplant cooking hacks cited in countless recipes doesn’t work as intended and is not necessary.

Have you ever salted eggplants after slicing them or cutting them up? Ever wonder why? I always salt my eggplants before I cook them. I don’t know who told me to do it or where I read it first, but I was under the impression that eggplants were bitter and needed salt to remove their bitterness. So did Medieval Persian doctors and botanists 1000 years ago, and I just learned I’ve been salting my eggplants for no good reason—anymore. Eggplants used to be bitter and not that pleasant to eat unless they were salted enough to counteract the unpleasant taste. Over thousands of years, farmers selected less and less bitter eggplants to grow and harvest. And now, thanks to the selective plant breeding practices farmers adopted, our eggplants are no longer bitter and do not need the extra salting step

Nope, not bitter

hot air

Perhaps you already knew eggplants aren’t bitter but you still salt them before cooking. But if there is no bitterness to worry about, why bother? Eggplants have millions of minuscule air pockets inside that give them their unique spongy texture. These air pockets are super soakers. If you slice an eggplant, do nothing to it, and place it on hot oil, that slice suddenly turns into a magician: within seconds, all that hot oil disappears and you’re left with a dry pan and the need to replenish the oil to prevent a burnt mess. What happened? The oil disappeared into the millions of air pockets. And all these tiny pockets can absorb a lot—a half-inch eggplant slice will slurp up 2 tablespoons of oil! That’s why some eggplant dishes like the Turkish classic Imam Bayildi is rich and filling even though eggplants are fat-free and low on calories. 

To avoid soggy, oily eggplants, it’s best to remove the air trapped inside. Salt can help. Salting eggplants for at least 30 minutes draws out moisture, weakens the internal cellular structures, and makes it possible to press out the extra air. But, as J. Kenji López-Alt explains in The Food Lab, you need to press the salted eggplant quite hard and chances are parts of the eggplant will still retain some air and be undercooked. Instead of salting, Kenji suggests a faster, tried-and-true method: use the microwave! Dice or slice your eggplant, place the eggplant between paper towels on a plate, and stack a heavy plate on top. Now nuke the eggplant for 5-10 minutes and let the device do all the work. The microwave does everything that salting, resting, and pressing accomplishes in a fraction of the time. 

what to make with eggplants

Skipping the eggplant salting step is a serious time saver and gets me excited to cook and eat all things eggplant. I started with Fuchsia Dunlop’s easy garlicky steamed eggplant and Wen and Jess’s Food Heaven baked eggplant fries, which I ended up making with sourdough breadcrumbs (I want to try chickpea flour too!), dipping them in a spicy garlic yogurt sauce, and regretting nothing.

Baked sourdough crispy eggplant fries for a homemade outdoor lunch.

What’s next? I’m deciding between Kenji’s Baba Ganoush, Sylvia's pickled Moroccan eggplants, or Rosemary's grilled melanzane, a classic Italian antipasti. Because eggplant does not store well, I need to decide ASAP what I’ll do with the two eggplants I had in my fridge, which, by the way, is not the ideal home for an eggplant—lesson learned. 

not too cold and not too hot pretty please

Just like my salting ritual, I stored eggplants in the fridge out of habit. After learning that eggplants should not go in the fridge, I find it odd that an appliance that preserves so much of the food I buy would damage an eggplant. But as someone who grew up in Colombia, I sympathize with this tropical fruit. As Harold McGee explains in On Food and Cooking, fruits and vegetables native to warm climates like eggplants, tomatoes, and melons hate the cold (and so do I!). Eggplants won’t grow when it’s cold out and they also won’t last long after harvest in anything less than a cool 50F.

How come? It’s not entirely clear why, but when eggplants go in the fridge, the low temperatures trigger an uncontrolled release of enzymes that damage cells and speed up aging, resulting in off-flavors and discoloration. Eggplants are also sensitive to the air around them and prefer to hang out by themselves. They age quite fast when there’s ethylene gas around them, which is a gas apples, potatoes, and other fruits and vegetables release as they ripen (read this Seasonal post to learn how ethylene gas changes the green peel on mandarins to an orange color). Eggplants will keep well in isolation on the countertop for a few days (unless it’s too hot), but at the end of the day, it’s best to cook eggplants within a day or two of buying them. They’ll taste great and won’t end up in the compost bin.

learn, adapt, change, repeat

A little detective work to solve eggplant mysteries has gone a long way. Yes, eggplant ancestry remains a mystery but the rest of the eggplant knowledge uncovered throughout this post is an example of learning from what’s already been discovered. With nightshades, for example, it took quite a bit of digging around to find answers in obscure resources like the Iconography and History of Solanaceae: Antiquity to the 17th Century paper published by the Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Department at Purdue University and the Encyclopedia of Aphrodisiacs written by German historians, anthropologists, and ethnologists. And with salting eggplants, word-of-mouth recipes, online how-to’s, and even published cookbooks written by James Beard Award winners end up repeating and emphasizing misconceptions based on ancient truths that are no longer true today. The best way to correct misconceptions is to not accept the answer “that’s just the way it is” and instead wonder why things are the way they are and pursue that curiosity. I couldn’t be happier about having misunderstood eggplants for so long. It’s good to be wrong. Failure is how we learn. And when we learn, we can seize new opportunities to adapt and change. I’ve fully embraced my new relationship with eggplants, and I’m all the better for it.

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Andrea Castillo is a food nerd who always wants to know the what’s, how’s, when’s, and why’s of the food she eats.