Most theories hold that eggplant came from India, mostly because there are still some regions in that country where eggplant grows wild. The vegetable most likely went from India to the Arab world, and from there to Europe carried by the Crusaders nearly a thousand years ago.
Although it is most widely used now in Italy, it was at first distrusted by Italians. The Italian name for eggplant, melanzana, came from the Latin melum and insanummeaning “unhealthy apple.” The mistrust was over come during the Renaissance and is now one of the most widely used vegetable in the Mediterranean regions. Its dense and satisfying texture made it a good substitute for meat, which was unaffordable to most people in the Mediterranean.
Although the most common eggplant sold in America is the large, dark purple teardrop shaped variety, there now exists a greater choice of varieties. The Japanese eggplant is smaller and more elongated. A small, white eggplant has been developed that is sometimes used in the Middle East. There is also a dark orange and small Thai eggplant that is sold mainly in Asian produce markets.
One of the funniest folk tales in Lebanon and Syria is about eggplant, which holds that there is a male eggplant and female eggplant. On the bottom of the so-called male eggplant, there is a small extension that is bitter to taste. The female eggplant has a depression on the bottom and more round in shape and, of course, is sweeter to taste.
My father, who is a farmer in Syria, does not accept that theory, claims that an eggplant that is dark burgundy in color, is full of seeds which makes it more bitter in taste. The blacker the eggplant (or the darker purple) means that it is sweeter. The easiest way for you, if you do not trust the male-female theory, is to make certain that the skin of the eggplant is smooth, shiny and firm. It should feel heavy when you hold it which means there are fewer seeds.
Eggplant Caviar, Baba Ghanouj
makes 3 cups
2 one pound eggplants
1/2 cup green bell pepper, finely chopped
1/2 cup red bell pepper, finely chopped
1/2 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
1 clove garlic, mashed
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
-Pierce the eggplant with a fork in few places.
-To get the best smoked flavor, place on a charcoal grill, turning so tha all sides are charred. Grill eggplant unti the skin begins to blister and the pulp is soft. Remove from the heat, cool and peel the skin. Discard the skin and mash the pulp.
-Mix all ingredients and refrigerate couple hours before serving.
-The spread is usually served in a shallow dish with pita chips.