Seasonal Eggplant from Lyndey Milan
Not only is the eggplant a sustainable choice with its low water needs, it can also take you on a culinary voyage throughout the world.
As I immersed myself in all things eggplant, a process that tends to consume not just my bedtime reading, but my daytime conversations too, my delightful neighbours handed me their much-thumbed copy of a French cookbook called Voyage des Aubergines.
We throw around the idea of a voyage or, dare I say, ‘journey’ rather too loosely these days, and yet I think this is the first time I have heard it used in relation to a humble vegetable. This (roughly translated from the French) struck a particular chord: “Just like people, plants have their histories: voyages, migrations, transplantations, adaptations to new lands and to new cultures.”
Simply by studying the etymology of this vegetable (ok, technically a fruit, or more specifically, a berry) you can start to unravel this voyage through the kitchens of the world. With its origins thought to be in the Ancient Indian word vatin-ganah, it evolved to badin-gan in the hands of the Persians before finding its way into Arabic kitchens, where the word changed to al-badinjan; by sea it was taken to the Catalans where it was known as albergina, followed by a short trip to aubergine in French. (And this is just one side of the voyage, there is an equally tangled tale spreading from the word mela, meaning apple, and making its way into the Italian dialect as melanzana).
We can track an alternative culinary voyage via their shape: from the long, slender Japanese version (milder than the others and with thinner skins) to the miniature pea-shaped berries used in Thailand and Indonesia (somewhat of an acquired taste, they are very seedy and extremely bitter), to the radiantly violet eggplants of China and, of course, the white, egg-shaped variety, believed to be the early European version and where we get the name ‘egg’ plant. These varieties offer more than visual cues, but also textural and taste changes.
From here you can take your chosen canvas and fly further with your recipe of choice.
If it’s Italy you miss, you have the choice of eggplant parmigiana, their delightfully agridolce caponata or the classic pasta alla norma. For a taste of France, choose from the Provençal tian or their famed ratatouille; for a taste of the Greek Isles, perhaps a moussaka.
In Middle Eastern kitchens, of course, there’s baba ghanoush – where they char the eggplants over hot coals before mixing with tahini, lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil and perhaps some capers. It is here we also see that eggplant makes a great bed-fellow to pomegranate. In Turkey, you find their patlican biber on most street corners – aubergine and green peppers fried in olive oil and served with tomatoes and garlic or with yoghurt with salt (and more garlic), alternatively, opt for imam bayildi, baked until soft and then stuffed with a tomato and onion mix and lashings of olive oil.
It would be remiss of us to exclude India and their achar (pickles) and curries, while a voyage to China will yield the unctuous stickiness of ‘fish-fragrant’ aubergine of Sichuan cookery – not actually containing fish, but so-named for the use of a seasoning used with fish, consisting of Sichuan chilli bean paste, chilli, garlic, black vinegar. It is important to make note here that the eggplant does a wonderful job of playing the role of protein in many a dish. There are red-cooked eggplants in Shanghai, green-curry eggplants in Thailand and miso-basted eggplants in Japan.
As our opportunities to travel remain curtailed, our kitchen presents opportunities that the airlines cannot. The eggplant is a great place to start…
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Look for squeaky, taut eggplants, smooth, shiny and heavy for their size. Avoid those that are wrinkly or bruised. Eggplants will keep in the crisper of your fridge for a few days.
You will doubtless have heard of the possibility of disgorging them with salt. The seeds taste bitter because they’re covered in nicotinoid alkaloids (like the related tobacco plant). Salting, rinsing and draining can help diminish this, but I only find that valuable when the eggplants are large (and thus the seeds more bitter). That said, the salting does also seem to reduce their olive oil absorption. These super absorbent skills can also be used for good (sucking up sauce).
The alchemy of the aubergine lies in its transformation from bland, spongy nothingness to savoury, creamy deliciousness. Frying them brings out the creamy, while roasting or stewing brings out the mushroomy, musky flavours.
Anchovy, capers, chilli, cumin, garlic, ginger, tahini, mint, miso, olive oil, lamb, nutmeg, mozzarella, tomato, walnut.
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