Eggplants are a common vegetable found in many cuisines around the world. Their unique purple color and egg-like shape make them instantly recognizable. But what exactly is an eggplant? In this comprehensive guide, we will explore everything you need to know about this intriguing veggie.
What is an Eggplant?
Eggplants, also known as aubergine or brinjal, are members of the nightshade family Solanaceae. They are native to India and southeast Asia, but are now grown in warm climates around the world. The most common variety found in grocery stores is the large, oval-shaped purple eggplant. However, eggplants actually come in many sizes, shapes, and colors including white, green, orange, and yellow.
Botanically speaking, eggplants are classified as berries. They grow similarly to tomatoes on bushy plants approximately 2-3 feet tall. The flesh inside ranges in color from white to yellow or purple. Each plant can produce between 4-12 fruits in a single growing season.
Eggplants are warm weather crops that thrive in hot, humid environments. They grow best with daytime temperatures between 70-85°F and need at least 6 hours of full sunlight per day. Eggplants are ready for harvest approximately 60-80 days after planting when the skin is shiny and firm with a faint bounce.
Eggplant Origins and History
Eggplants have a very long and storied history as part of cuisines around the world. They were first domesticated in India over 4,000 years ago. From there, they spread throughout Asia and the Middle East via trade routes like the Silk Road. By the 14th century CE, eggplants had been introduced into Europe by the Moors.
In Asia and the Middle East, eggplants became a common part of local cuisines. They were embraced for their meaty texture that provides substance to dishes. Different varieties emerged that were best suited to local climates and culinary preferences.
When eggplants first arrived in Europe, they were initially viewed with suspicion and thought to be poisonous like some other nightshade plants. They gained more widespread acceptance starting in the 18th century when recipes appeared in early cookbooks. The Italians, Spanish, and French began preparing them in ways now recognizable as classic eggplant dishes.
Eggplants were introduced to the Americas by European colonists. Thomas Jefferson was one of the first Americans to grow eggplants, which he called “guinea squash”, in his Monticello garden in the early 19th century.
Today, China, India, Iran, Egypt, and Turkey remain top eggplant producers and consumers. Italy, southeast Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Africa also boast cuisines rich in eggplant dishes. They have become a beloved part of food cultures around the world.
Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits
Eggplants are highly nutritious, with an impressive range of vitamins, minerals, and health-promoting phytonutrients. Some of the top nutrients found in 1 cup (80g) of cooked eggplant include:
Eggplants are very low in saturated fat and cholesterol. They are also high volume foods with low calorie density, meaning you can eat a large portion with minimal impact on your daily calorie intake.
Some of the top health benefits associated with eggplants include:
- Heart health – Eggplants contain chlorogenic acid, an antioxidant that may protect against LDL cholesterol oxidation and improve heart health.
- Lower blood pressure – The anthocyanins that give eggplants their purple hue may help decrease arterial stiffness and lower blood pressure.
- Regulate blood sugar – Eggplants are high in fiber and low glycemic which helps regulate blood sugar levels.
- Aid digestion – The fiber content makes eggplants beneficial for improving digestion and gut health.
- Anti-cancer properties – Eggplants contain nasunin and other antioxidants that exhibit anti-cancer capabilities in lab studies.
- Brain function – The potent free radical scavenging activity may support brain health and cognitive function.
- Bone health – Eggplants provide an array of minerals important for bone density including manganese, vitamin K, potassium, and folate.
Overall, adding eggplants to your diet can be an easy way to increase nutrient intake and obtain a host of health benefits.
There are many different varieties of eggplant grown around the world. Some of the most common types include:
This large, oval shaped purple skinned variety is the most commonly found eggplant. It has firm, smooth skin and a mild, sweet tasting white flesh when cooked.
Italian eggplants are smaller and more slender than globe eggplants. They have tender skin and few seeds. Great for dishes like eggplant parmesan.
As the name suggests, this variety comes from Japan. It is elongated and curved with deep purple color and white stripes. The flesh is firm and retains its shape well during cooking.
This variety is commonly found in Chinese cuisine. Chinese eggplants are long, thin, and lavender in color. They have a delicate skin and subtly sweet flavor.
Often added to curries, Thai eggplants are small in size but packed with flavor. They range from light green to dark purple hues and are sometimes called pea eggplants.
Used extensively in Indian cooking, these eggplants are teardrop shaped with a dark purple color. They hold up well in curries and have a mild taste.
As the name suggests, this variety has a white skin and flesh color. It has a very mild, delicate flavor compared to purple eggplants.
This uniquely colored variety has vivid purple skin with thin white striping, resembling graffiti street art. It has a creamy, edible skin and tender flesh.
There are also many specialty “mini” eggplant varieties like Fairy Tale, Little Fingers, and Easter Egg. These small eggplants come in an array of colors.
Selecting and Storing Eggplant
When purchasing eggplants, look for ones that are firm and heavy for their size with smooth, shiny skin and bright green caps. Avoid eggplants with wrinkled, dull, or brown skin, as well as any bruises or soft spots.
Look for eggplants that are approximately 6-10 inches long. Larger, overgrown eggplants tend to be bitter and have hard seeds. The perfect eggplants should feel tender when gently pressed.
Eggplants are very perishable and will only keep for 2-3 days when stored properly. Leave them whole and store in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator until ready to use. Do not wash them until right before cooking.
How to Cook with Eggplant
Eggplants are very versatile vegetables that can be prepared in many different ways. Here are some of the most common cooking methods:
Grilled eggplant gets beautifully caramelized and develops a rich, smoky flavor. Slice eggplants into 1/2 inch rounds, brush with oil, and grill for 2-3 minutes per side.
Roasting concentrates the flavor of eggplants and gives them a melt-in-your-mouth texture. Cut into cubes, toss with oil, and roast at 425°F for 20-25 minutes.
Quick sautéing in olive oil is perfect for eggplant dishes like Eggplant Parmesan. Sauté cubed eggplant on medium-high heat until browned and tender.
Broiling eggplant directly under high heat helps reduce any bitterness in the flesh. Slice eggplants, rub with oil, broil 4-5 inches from heat source for 4-5 minutes.
Baked eggplant has a soft, creamy inside and deliciously crispy skin. Bake whole eggplants at 400°F for 50-60 minutes until totally tender when pierced.
Frying gives eggplant a crispy crunch. For eggplant fries or chips, cut into strips or slices, toss with flour, and fry in oil for 2-3 minutes.
Common Eggplant Dishes Around the World
Eggplants are used in a diverse array of dishes around the world. Here are some of the most classic ways to cook with eggplants by cuisine:
- Baba ghanoush – smoky eggplant dip
- Fattoush – vegetable salad with fried eggplant
- Imam bayildi – stuffed eggplant with tomato sauce
- Eggplant parmesan
- Caponata – sweet and sour eggplant relish
- Pasta alla norma – pasta with eggplant and tomato
- Baingan bharta – fire roasted eggplant mash
- Eggplant curry
- Stuffed baby eggplants
- Stir fried Chinese eggplant
- Braised eggplant
- Eggplant with garlic sauce
- Nasu dengaku – miso glazed grilled eggplant
- Japanese eggplant salad
- Eggplant curry
- Stir fries
- Grilled eggplant salad
Eggplants are a remarkably diverse and delicious vegetable that have become integral parts of cuisines around the world. Their adaptable nature allows them to take on any flavor while adding beneficial nutrients. From rich baba ghanoush to crispy eggplant fries, there are endless tasty ways to cook with this purple nightshade berry. When shopping, look for firm, smooth-skinned eggplants without any bruises. Store properly and use within a few days for best quality and flavor. The next time you see eggplants at the market, grab a few and experiment with new ways to enjoy their texture and versatility.