July 14, 2024


Welcome to the Food

A recipe for Mashed Curried Eggplant (Baigan Bharta)

Like the tomato, to which it is related botanically, the eggplant (Solanum melongena) is a fruit, not a vegetable, though we consider it and cook it as the latter.

Unlike the tomato, however, a food that typically adds flavors to other cooked foods, the eggplant is marvelous in how it takes on flavors. It is one of cooking’s great canvases. It is mild in flavor and has been constructed by nature to be little more than a sponge. It is set up to do its job from the get-go.

Around the world, the eggplant is roasted, grilled, baked, braised, pan-fried, deep-fried, smoked and stewed. Turks brag that they have 40 ways to cook eggplant; it is ubiquitous in the cooking of both the Near and Middle East. There is no ratatouille without eggplant, no Sicilian caponata, no baba ghanoush.

Greeks make moussaka of it; the Italians are famous for their melanzane parmigiana, which we Americans of whatever background have taken to with alacrity.

You can readily see how it gets its name from the eggplant commonly available in our grocery stores: it’s a big, purple-black “egg,” capped with a green beanie. (If you ever encounter a white eggplant, you’ll clearly see its ovoid character.) Smaller versions of the same are called Italian eggplants; they resemble purple-black truncheons.

Chinese and Japanese eggplants are much more elongated than these two but similarly colored, with Chinese eggplants sometimes approaching lavender in hue. Thai eggplants are smallish and green-striped; Indian, small again, striped and reddish-purple. Philippine eggplants are medium-long and greenish-purple. There are other eggplants, with other colors and other shapes, from other places.

All cook up much the same, although each has its special place; the Thai eggplant, for example, being one of the only that’s easily eaten raw.

Their common issue in the kitchen is how their innate nature soaks up its cooking medium, most often oil, making for a fatty-tasting, often greasy finish to the food.