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The “Mad Apple”: The Terrifying Eggplant — Part II

When the eggplant arrived in Northern Europe, it was greeted warily. John Gerard, the 16th century English herbalist, urged his countrymen to avoid it. Although it was eaten by the Spaniards and the Arabs, “I rather wish English men to content themselves with the meat and sauces of our owne country, than with fruit and sauce eaten with such peril,” he cautioned. “Doubtlesse these Apples have a mischevous qualitie. . . . It is therefore better to esteem this plant and have it in the garden for your pleasure and the rarenesse thereof, than for any virtue or good qualities yet knowne.”

The eggplant’s leaves, Gerard noted, had a worrisome resemblance to henbane, a member of the poisonous nightshade family, which, along with eggplants, includes potatoes, tomatoes, and tobacco.

The nightshades, many of which share a fleshy berry (the eggplant is botanically a berry), are part of the genus Solanum. Its Latin name, which comes from the word for quieting is an apt one, botanist Charles Heiser points out: Some of the plants in the group are indeed sedatives.

Eggplants can also cause disease, English herbalist John Parkinson warned. They are suitable for Italy and “other hot countries,” he conceded. “They [the people] doe eate them with more desire and pleasure than we do cowcumbers.” People should only eat the vegetables after boiling them with vinegar “for by their bitternesse and acrimony . . . they engender Melancholly, the Leprosie, Cancers, the Piles . . . the Headache, and a stinking breath, breed obstructions in the Liver and Spleene, and change the complection into a foule blacke and yellow colour.” To add to its perils, Parkinson writes, the eggplant “invites to venery.”

Parkinson and Gerard were not speaking of the familiar purple aubergine, but of something more egg-shaped. The vegetable was named accordingly. “The fruit . . . [is] great and somewhat long, of the bignesse of a Swans egge, and sometimes much greater, of a white colour, sometimes yellow, and often brown,” in Gerard’s depiction.

Even in the Middle East, where it achieved its greatest fame, the eggplant had to overcome fears and prejudice. Ibn Washiya, an Arab toxicologist, wrote in his book on poisons that eating the raw vegetable could be fatal. In Arab lore, the badinjan was considered threatening and distasteful. “Its color is like the scorpion’s belly and its taste is like the scorpion’s sting,” food scholar Charles Perry quotes an 11th century Bedouin saying.

Arab physicians presented a litany of ills induced by the eggplant. It caused melancholia, Avicenna claimed. Rhazes warned that it inflamed the blood and produced pustules in the mouth.

Its bitterness, Perry argues, may have been the most difficult handicap eggplant had to overcome in the path to acceptance. Arab cooks gradually discovered that salting slices before frying diminished its bitterness. Meat stews that featured fried eggplant became standards of court cuisine.

The fearsome vegetable was now received with adulation. The 10th century Syrian poet Kushajam was passionate about it: “The doctor makes ignorant fun of me for liking eggplant, but I will not give it up. Its flavor is like the salivaz generously exchanged by lovers in kissing.”

The eggplant acquired an esteemed position in Middle Eastern cuisine. Cooks devised new presentations for it — one Arabic cookbook outlined 18 ways to cook the vegetable. The “lord of vegetables” (sayyd al-Khadar, in Arabic) crowned dishes served at weddings, festive parties, and royal functions. So embedded did the eggplant become in Arab culture that it was said that every young girl should know a hundred ways to make it.

The Ottoman Turks, who learned of the eggplant from the Arabs and Persians, treated it regally. The palace kitchens in Constantinople transformed the once lowly “apple” into a luxurious food. Eggplant was prominent among the dolmas, the wide array of Turkish stuffed vegetable dishes. These sumptuous plates spread from Turkey throughout the Middle East.

Oil-rich eggplant creations were a hallmark of Turkish court cuisine. The storied dish, iman bayildi (the priest fainted), is a lavish example. The baked eggplant is stuffed with a bountiful filling of tomatoes and onions and is enriched with olive oil. One legend has the priest so overcome with the pleasure of the dinner that he faints. Or perhaps he succumbed after discovering the excessive olive oil that went into its preparation.

The eggplant and other Turkish foods also followed the path of the Ottoman armies into the Balkans during the 14th and 15th centuries. The eggplant was cultivated for the first time in colonized Bulgaria, Romania, and Yugoslavia and was absorbed in their cuisine.

Numerous takes on iman bayildi emerge from Balkan kitchens. The menus of these lands also list variations on the moussaka, sometimes called the “cottage pie of the Balkans.” Its Turkish name comes from the Arabic musaqqa, or “moistened.” The spellings of the dish may be different — muska, musaca — but the casseroles have common features. They either combine layers of vegetables (usually eggplant, but sometimes potatoes and other produce) and minced lamb or beef or are exclusively vegetarian.

Ajvar, an eggplant relish whose name derives from havyar, Turkish for caviar, has an enthusiastic following throughout the nations of the former Yugoslavia. All claim this purée of roasted eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes as their national dish. It is a regular accompaniment to cevapcici, the Balkan kebab also of Turkish provenance.

In the rivalry over ajvar, Macedonia was most aggressive. Its government, press spokesman Ivica Bocevski said, was determined to make the condiment a “world-recognized product.” Macedonia won the right to trademark the item with the brand name Macedonian Ajvar.

The Lebanese, the Middle East’s preeminent restaurateurs, have spread the fame of a wide array of eggplant dishes that are fixtures of their mezze, or appetizer, tables. From Australia to the United States, the immigrant entrepreneurs have showcased the eggplant in their cafés, restaurants, and groceries.

Baba ghanouj, the classic eggplant dip, is a Lebanese specialty. Its smoky fragrance, left over from the roasting process, and rich, creamy flavor are seductive. Redolent of garlic and lemon, the baba gets a tang from the sesame tahini whipped into the dish. Luxuriant in olive oil, the “spoiled daddy,” the dip’s Arabic name, evokes an endearing decadence.

Bethenjan makli is a plate of crisp disks of fried eggplant with a garlicky yogurt dipping sauce. Chunks of eggplant mixed with crunchy pieces of fried pita bread, tomatoes, and parsley highlight a salad called salatet bethenjan. Decorated with pickled turnips, it is dressed with pomegranate molasses.

Initially, the New World was no more welcoming to the eggplant than was the old. The Spaniards, the 16th century naturalist José de Acosta noted, transported the “apples of love” to the Americas. As it circulated in the United States, the eggplant did not easily take hold. Thomas Jefferson, who experimented with eggplant cuttings at Monticello, mentions purple and white eggplants among his crops. For the most part, though, except in pockets like the Creole enclaves of New Orleans, it was regarded primarily as an ornamental plant until the early 20th century.

Even then the eggplant had an alien image. It was the fare of Southern European and Middle Eastern immigrants and consequently couldn’t be really “American.”

By the 1960s, American diners were growing more receptive. Greek restaurants won their patrons over by serving them mussaka, which entered the culinary mainstream. Americans introduced to eggplant parmigiana at Italian “red sauce” restaurants became fans of the once exotic vegetable. Today, we no longer shrink, we salivate, when offered eggplant.

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Eggplant Eats

Astor Mediterranean (1829 Col. Rd.; tel., 745-7495). This Egyptian owned eatery serves up a grilled eggplant wrap and an Egyptian pizza with eggplant topping. Musakkaa, a mixture of baked eggplant and tomatoes accented with garlic and moistened with olive oil, is a tasty appetizer.

Vace Italian Delicatessen (3315 Conn. Ave.; tel., 363-1999). This grocery sells cans of caponata, the eggplant relish.