We know that eggplants were cultivated in southern and eastern Asia since prehistory because the first known written record of the plant is found in “Qimin Yaoshu”, an ancient Chinese agricultural treatise completed in 544 B.C. Later documentation in Chinese records illustrates the changes that were wrought in eggplants, from the small, round green fruits to the large and long-necked fruit with a purple peel. Interestingly, the Chinese botanists also endeavoured to remove the bitter flavour in the fruits. In ancient Indian literature, there are more than 30 Sanskrit names for the fruit, with the oldest direct mention dated from the third century AD; with a possible reference which may date back as early as 300 BC. Eggplant is believed to have been brought back to the attention of the Middle East, Africa and the West by Arabic traders along the Silk Road, beginning around the 6th century AD; and Thomas Jefferson first introduced them to 18th century America. Today, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, China and Japan are the leading growers of eggplant.
Because of the bitter taste of the early varieties, eggplant did not always hold the revered place in food culture that it does today, especially in European cuisines; and for centuries after its introduction into Europe it was used more as a decorative garden plant than as food. Not until newer varieties were developed in the 18th century without the very bitter taste, did this fruit take it’s now esteemed place in the cuisines of many European countries, including Italy, Greece, Turkey and France.
Eggplants come in an astounding variety of shapes and colours, and roughly 770 different varieties from around the world can be found at the USDA's eggplant collection in Griffin, Georgia. The fruits can be large or miniature; egg-shaped, round, or long and thin; in colours ranging from purple to black, deep red and even white or yellow.
The incredibly versatile eggplant works in everything from Italian to Asian recipes, and an added bonus is that it makes a tasty substitute for meat. While the different varieties do vary slightly in taste and texture, one can generally describe eggplant as having a pleasantly bitter taste and spongy texture. In many recipes, eggplant fulfils the role of being a complementary ingredient that balances the surrounding flavours of other more pronounced ingredients. Sicilians call eggplant "the meat of the earth" and prepare and use the white-fleshed purple-skinned fruit much like meat cutlets. You can fry it, grill it or bake it. You can also stuff, roast, puree, stew, or even pickle it - so be adventurous when cooking eggplant! Try making Greek moussaka - a baked dish consisting of layers of sautéed slices of eggplant or potato and ground lamb, usually flavoured with tomatoes, onions and cinnamon, and covered with a custard sauce sprinkled with grated cheese. Vegetarian versions of moussaka which may include baby marrows (zucchini) and chickpea’s, are also delicious. A classic ratatouille - a vegetable stew of Provence, typically consisting of eggplant, zucchini, onions, green peppers, tomatoes, and garlic, can be served hot or cold and is a great way of using all those summer crops.
In India, eggplant is used in many exciting ways, too many to mention here. “Baingan Bharta” is a favourite North Indian curry made by first roasting the eggplants until very soft. The flesh is then scraped from the skin and cooked with tomatoes, onions, garlic, fresh and dried coriander, turmeric, and other spices until thickened and richly flavoured. This dish is great served with naan, roti or rice. “Aloo Baingan” is a wonderfully easy to make potato and eggplant curry; and Bengali-style aubergine cooked in yoghurt is just as easy to make. Traditional Maharashtrian curry popularly known as "bharli vangi" or "stuffed eggplant" is an exotic dish made with baby eggplants, stuffed with spicy masala, sweet and tangy gravy. Other Indian recipes include: eggplant and cauliflower stew; salmon and eggplant curry; curried eggplant with tomatoes and basil; and even a delicious spiced eggplant and lentil salad with mango.
Nutritionally, eggplant is low in fat, protein and carbohydrates but a good source of potassium, magnesium, manganese, calcium, copper, iron, phosphorous and zinc, among other trace minerals. In addition, it contains B-complex vitamins, a number of phytonutrients, antioxidants, vitamin C and healthy fats. Recently, scientists have found eggplant to contain powerful antioxidant phenols, including the anthocyanin phytonutrient called “nasunin”, found in the skin of the plant, and which is important for neutralizing damaging free radicals in your body. The phytonutrients can also help circulation and keep cholesterol at healthy levels.
Because eggplant is low in calories and has high water content, it is great for slimmer’s, keeping one feeling full for longer. The high amounts of B-vitamins have the ability to keep us less stressed and thinking clearly. The high water content, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats also all play a major role in keeping our hair healthy and strong, our skin soft and glowing, and our nails clear and non-brittle.
Because of its high fibre content, eggplant promotes healthy digestion and has been found to be especially useful in the treatment of colon cancer. Their fibre, combined with low soluble carbohydrates, help in the regulation of blood sugar levels and aids in the absorption of glucose. Consuming eggplant regularly can be highly beneficial to a person suffering from type-2 diabetes.
In the Garden:
Some varieties of eggplant are great for edible landscaping with their dramatic foliage and colourful fruit. Try adding them to the mixed flower border, along with chillies and other peppers, for an unusual display. The smaller varieties are lovely in containers.
Companion Planting: Eggplants are hungry plants and need to absorb a significant amount of nitrogen, so planting them with bush or climbing beans in the vegetable garden makes perfect sense, because all legumes, like peas and beans, leach additional nitrogen into the surrounding soil. Be sure to situate your eggplant in front of climbing beans so they won’t be shaded by the taller growing beans. Bush beans serve a dual purpose as a companion plant because they also repel the potato beetles. Marigolds also repel beetles from eggplants, but beans do not like growing near them, so you will have to choose one or the other as a companion plant for eggplant. Herbs are also useful bug repellents for eggplants; French tarragon will ward off any number of pesky insects, while thyme deters garden moths.
Eggplants are warm season crops that are sensitive to frost. In the hot subtropical regions of the country they can be sown from very early spring right through to late summer and autumn, but in cold and frosty regions, wait until all danger of frost is over and the soil in nice and warm before sowing directly into garden beds. In cold regions, seed can be started indoors about 8 to 10 weeks before your last frost date. This will ensure you have sturdy plant to plant out once all danger of frost is over. Because the seeds need warmth to germinate, bottom heat is essential for germination. Cover the seeds lightly with soil, and water using a fine mist spray. Keep the soil moist, but not wet until germination, which can take 7 to 14 days. If you prefer purchasing trays of seedlings, wait until the days are consistently sunny, and all threat of frosty or cold nights has passed before buying, because eggplants hate being cold and will suffer from failure-to-thrive syndrome when conditions are not to their liking.
For best results, eggplants must grow quickly, so prepare your beds thoroughly, adding lots of compost and old manure with a dressing of organic 2:3:2. The ideal pH is 5.5 to 6.5. During hot weather, mulch around their roots will help keep moisture in the soil. Because varieties vary in height and spread, space your plants according to the instructions on the seed packet or tray. Full sun is essential for these crops, as well as good air circulation to prevent fungal diseases. Be sure to water regularly, or the fruits will be small and bitter. They need a nice, steady supply of moisture but not so much that the soil is continually soggy. Drip systems or a soaker hose are ideal watering methods, because they ensue that the foliage does not get wet, which encourages fungal diseases. Once the plants start flowering feed them every 4 weeks with a balanced organic fertiliser that is high in potassium and nitrogen. Eggplants are prone to falling over when loaded with fruit, so you may want to tie plants to stakes to keep them upright. If you drive a stake into the ground just a few centimetres from the plant at the time of planting, you won’t damage the roots by trying to do it later. You can also use small tomato cages to support the plants.
Eggplants should start bearing fruit after about 14 weeks in the ground. Start picking the fruit as soon as it is big enough, a perfect fruit will have a glossy skin and show a sprinkling of soft, well-formed yet immature seeds when you slice it open. Use pruning shears to harvest the fruit, leaving a short stub of stem attached. Eggplants will continue to produce fruit for many months, until the onset of cold weather.
Pests & Diseases:
The tiny, black flea beetle is by far the worst nemesis of eggplant, but big, healthy plants usually produce well despite the tiny leaf holes made by these beetles. Red spider mites, poor flowering and bud drop can become a problem in hot, dry weather. Keep your plants watered and spray the leaves down regularly to help alleviate this problem. If the leaves become wrinkled and distorted by aphids, spray them off with soapy water. Watch out for caterpillars that eat the leaves. Fruit fly can also become a problem at times. Powdery mildew may become troublesome, especially in hot, humid conditions, or if the plants are receiving too much shade and air circulation around the plants is bad. For fungal conditions water only in the mornings, so that the leaves are totally dry by nightfall and spray with an organic fungicide if necessary. Bacterial blights may occur in regions with high summer rainfall.
Aubergines contain significant amounts of oxalate. Individuals with a history of oxalate-containing kidney stones should avoid overconsuming them.