By Tim Hazell
Wild eggplants are prickly, a protective aspect eliminated through centuries of domestication. Eggplant (Solanum melongena), also known as aubergine, is believed to have had medicinal, rather than culinary, use after its domestication in Southeast Asia. Ancient Chinese literature documents a centuries-long process of genetic modification. The eggplant’s progenitor may have first appeared as a garden weed native to Africa and the Middle East.
Direct references to the eggplant in Sanskrit literature date from the third century AD. Chinese manuscripts extol its virtues as early as the 59 BC Tong Yue document, which gives gardening advice. Further improvements included alterations in eggplant size and shape (from small, round, and green to the familiar long-necked purple variety) and unsuccessful attempts to remove its bitter flavor. Sixth-century Arab traders reintroduced the glories of the aubergine to kitchens of the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.
Eggplant is one of the favorite foods of Saint Oya, a member of voodoo’s divine hierarchy. Oya rules over winds and hurricanes and is Queen of the Marketplace.
When shopping for eggplants, look for ones that feel heavy for their size with tight, shiny skin. Eliminate the sometimes bitter undertone of the flesh by lightly salting or with a quick soak in salted water, called “brining.”
Modern China is the world’s leading producer and consumer of eggplants. Historic uses for the vegetable included the production of black dye from the skins, which was used to stain women’s teeth a fashionable black luster. Here is an ingenious Chinese recipe for a deep-fried eggplant.
Deep Fried Eggplants with Curry Filling
1/2 lb. lean ground beef or chicken
1 large whole scallion, finely chopped
1 tbsp. light soy
1 tsp. curry powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1 tbsp. cornstarch
1 lb. (about two) slender eggplants
1 egg, well beaten
1 cup dry breadcrumbs, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper
4 cups oil
Chop the ground meat a few times to loosen its formation. Place in a bowl, add seasonings and cornstarch in the order listed, and stir circularly in one direction until well mingled. Consistency should be dry. Cut off the stems and peel eggplants. Cut each crosswise into 1/3 inch slices. Spread one slice thickly with meat filling, and then cover with another slice, sandwich style. Leave smaller end pieces as they are and cut larger ones in half. Dip each piece into beaten egg and coat lightly but thoroughly with breadcrumbs on both sides. Use more than one cup if necessary.
Heat a wok or heavy pot over high flame for 30 seconds, add four cups oil and continue until a small cube of bread forms instantly. Lower in eggplant sandwiches piece by piece (half quantity at a time if pot is too crowded) and deep-fry four minutes or until golden brown and crisp, gently turning throughout the process. Drain on paper towels. Serves three-four as hot appetizers or main dish.