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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables
7 EGGPLANT (GARDEN EGG)
Late in the 1500s British traders introduced London’s greengrocers to a strange new vegetable they’d picked up along the coast of West Africa. By 1587 this so-called “Guinea squash” was on English dinner tables. Although eaten as a vegetable, it was actually a small fruit about the size of a hen’s egg. It was the same color as a hen’s egg also. This pure white ellipsoid made an eye-catching eatable, which for obvious reasons the public soon dubbed “egg-plant.”
At roughly the same time another vegetable also appeared in Britain. This one had fruits nothing like eggs. They were much larger, deep purple in color, and irregularly misshapen. For all their differences, though, the two plants were botanically related and shared common culinary characteristics.
For a while both were used. Eventually, however, the Guinea squash lost its toehold, and fell out of Western cuisine. The newcomer, on the other hand, not only survived but also took over its predecessor’s felicitous name. This is how a purplish blob, looking like no egg seen since perhaps the dinosaurs, came to be misnamed “eggplant.” The interloper1 that stole an African plant’s good name hailed from Asia, where it has been cultivated more than 4,000 years. In the Far East it even now holds a position comparable to that of tomato in other parts of the world. Indeed, it is sometimes referred to as “Asia’s tomato.”2
In recent centuries this versatile purplish vegetable has gone global in a big way and is now part of virtually every cuisine. It is fried, grilled, roasted, boiled, seared, baked, steamed, mashed, pickled, stir-fried, pureed, and otherwise prepared by many peoples. To give just a smattering of examples: Greeks, Italians, Syrians, and Egyptians all feature eggplant as daily fare. However, in the love of this bland and humble food none surpass the Turks, who claim to know a thousand ways of preparing it.3
Solanum melongena. Also known as brinjal or aubergine.
China and Southeast Asia together contribute 78 percent of world production, and in Japan eggplant is the fourth-most-important vegetable, after sweet potato, radish and Chinese cabbage.
Turkey actually grows about 20 percent of the world’s production—more than the rest of Europe combined.