Eggplant is a member of the Solanceae family and is related to tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, as well as nightshade and tobacco.
Food anthropologists believe that eggplant originally grew wild in India. It traveled to China by the 5th century B.C. where cultivation began. From there it was introduced to the Middle East and Africa before being taken to Europe in the middle Ages.
After its introduction, in many parts of Europe, the eggplant was used more as a decorative garden plant than as a food. This is due to its association with the nightshade family and partly because of its slightly bitter taste. By the 18th century new, more palatable varieties were developed, and the eggplant became widely used, if not a staple in the cuisines of many European countries, including Italy, Greece, Turkey and France.
Botanically eggplant is classified as a berry, and contains many small, soft edible seeds. Shapes, sizes and colors of eggplant abound from the shape of a small tomato to a large zucchini. The most common variety is a pear or egg shaped fruit with deep purple skin and cream colored flesh that is spongy in texture. But eggplant also comes in a cornucopia of other colors including lavender, jade green, orange, and of course white which is how the eggplant got its name. Early varieties of eggplant cultivated in the U.S. and Canada were white and shaped like hen or goose egg Imagine seeing a plant that looked like a small tree with eggs hanging from it!: hence the name eggplant.
In many recipes, eggplant serves as a substitution for meat and easily balances the surrounding flavors of other more pronounced ingredients. Unfortunately, eggplant also contains quite a bit of water, so in order to avoid absorbing a lot of oil when cooking, salt it lightly beforehand and let sit for about 30 – 60 minutes and pat dry. This will leach much of the water out of the eggplant allowing a firmer texture after cooking.
Eggplant does have to be cooked, though it can be prepared simply by grilling it with a little olive oil. It can also be roasted in a hot oven until it collapses and mashed. By adding tahini, garlic, a little olive oil and lemon it is transformed into a delicious Middle Eastern dip called Baba Ghanoush that is served with pita bread. Or slices of eggplant can be lightly fried and combined with tomato sauces and cheeses to become parmagiana (Italian) or Moussaka (Greek).
But the most famous preparation and the star of Pixar’s blockbuster is Ratatouille. There are almost as many recipes for Ratatouille as there are varieties of eggplant so the home cook has quite a degree of flexibility in what vegetables to include. I’ve seen recipes that call for okra, bell peppers, celery and even mushrooms though I prefer a simpler version containing just the classic basics: eggplant, onion, garlic, zucchini, tomatoes and fresh herbs.