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Food in the 'Hood

The “Mad Apple”: The Terrifying Eggplant – Part I

The “mad apple,” as eggplant was known centuries ago, has been transformed into a voluptuous vegetable. The member of the terrifying nightshade family was long feared for the maladies imputed to it. Eggplant was also considered unappetizing. But is there now another vegetable that so often takes center stage, that assumes so many incarnations—fried, baked, puréed, grilled, stewed, stuffed, pickled?

Native to India (or, as some suggest, Southeast Asia), the once-prickly shrub with spiny leaves grew wild on the hillsides. It bore little resemblance to today’s familiar variety, a plump purple hybrid. The early eggplant was smaller than a baseball. Its fruit was also intensely bitter.

In India, the wild eggplant was domesticated. Farmers bred spineless plants with bigger, less acrid fruits.

From its earliest days, the eggplant aroused fear. It was known as vatingana, belonging to the “windyclass,” in Sanskrit. In India, insanity was likened to volatile air currents.

The eggplant had a compensating virtue. It was believed to be erotically stimulating. The Kama Sutra claims that rubbing eggplant juice on the male organ produces a month-long erection.

The saga of the eggplant is interwoven with the story of the Arabs, who gradually came to adore it and who disseminated the plant throughout their lands. They most likely chanced on the eggplant when they conquered Persia in 642 A.D. It had arrived from India, which had close ties to Persia. The Arabs took the eggplant’s Persian name, badingan, except for the “g,” which they changed to “j.”

By the 9th century, the eggplant had been taken from Persia to Baghdad, the capital of the Islamic empire. As Islam expanded, its followers carried the plants to which it was devoted to new lands. Spinach, artichokes, almonds, and citrus traveled westward from the eastern side of the realm, transplanted, historian Andrew Watson says, by sailors, merchants, royalty, and ordinary travelers. In the process plants sired in tropical Asia and adopted by the Arabs reached the Mediterranean.

Spain, large parts of which the Islamic conquerors controlled for 500 years (from 721 to 1212), was the portal through which the foods of the Orient reached the West. Skilled Arab agriculturalists irrigated, planted, and tilled the new crops in Andalusia, a Muslim kingdom. Land that once been fallow during the summer now teemed with hot weather crops like eggplant, rice, and sugar.

Andalusian agronomist Ibn al ’Awwam was enchanted by the great variety of eggplants that were now growing. He described Egyptian plants with white fruits and purple flowers and Syrian ones with purple fruits and violet flowers. He observed two kinds of Spanish eggplant, one with black and the other with brown skin and both with purple flowers.

The locals, however, were not so ecstatic about the import. The berenjena, the eggplant’s new name (the source of the later French word aubergine), was viewed with suspicion. The Moorish invaders, the story went, craftily planted the poisonous eggplant in order to kill Christians.

The plant, moreover, had an alien image. It was regarded as a “Semitic” food favored by Muslims and the large colony of Sephardic Jews. Recipes for berenjena “Jewish style” and “Moorish style” appeared in 13th and 14th century Spanish cookbooks.

Even the conversos, the Jews forcibly converted after the Christians overpowered the Moors, were mocked for their eating habits. “At the Jewish wedding party,” a 15th century poet wrote, “a bristly pig was not consumed; not a single scaleless fish went down the gullet of the groom; instead an eggplant casserole with saffron and Swiss chard.”

The Italians, who likely received the eggplant from Arab traders, were slow to embrace the “apple of the moors.” Commentators saddled it with a host of ills. Castore Durante, a 16th century doctor, attributed melancholy, cancer, leprosy, and headaches to eating the unsavory vegetable. It was also, he noted, hard to digest.

Its reputation as an aphrodisiac followed the eggplant. People ate it, the 16th century Tuscan doctor M. Pietro Andrea Mattioli said, to “arouse lust.”

The name Italians attached to it, melanzane, revealed their fears. They derived it from the Latin, mala insana, or “mad apple.”

Muslims, it was thought, could enjoy eggplant without danger. Christians, however, risked psychic disorder or intoxication. Only after Armenian Christians in Venice, the story goes, ate the vegetable without ill effect did the fears abate.

Eggplant fanciers, some critics argued, were of vulgar character. “Eggplants should be eaten only by people of lowly status or by Jews,” the 17th century writer Antonio Frugoli warned.

Cooking the eggplant was, therefore, approached warily. Considered an ornamental plant because of its pretty leaves and white and purple flowers, it was mostly relegated to the garden. In northern Italy, in the late 17th century, eggplants were tended to in monastery gardens and rarely eaten.

When it was prepared at all, it was cooked in the most basic fashion. “Fried in oil with salt and pepper, it is eaten by the masses, in the way that mushrooms are eaten,” P.A. Mattioli remarked.

Away from the mainland, however, Sicilians exulted in the eggplant. In the 9th century, the Saracens, Arab warriors, marched onto the island and occupied it for 200 years. The eggplant, which flourished in the fields the Arabs skillfully irrigated, became central to Sicilian cooking.  The Sicilians put their own stamp on the melanzane, stuffing it with anchovies, black olives, tomatoes, and capers. Pine nuts and raisins, an Arab touch, enlivened the sauces for eggplant dishes.

Sicilians claim eggplant parmigiana as their own. Made with caciocavallo, a cow’s milk cheese, and not parmesan, the dish gets its name from their word for shutters, palmigiana, says food writer Mary Simeti. “Someone was reminded of a shutter as he covered a pan of overlapping eggplant slices with tomato sauce and caciocavallo,” she writes.

Caponata, the piquant eggplant relish, is of Sicilian origin. Typically prepared by housewives during the summer, it is a blend of tomatoes, onions, celery, and eggplant suffused with olive oil. The dish is sharpened with olives, capers, and vinegar.

Now a mainstay of the antipasto buffet, caponata may have started as a food for sailors. Vinegar kept it fresh and savory during a long voyage.

Like ratatouille, its Provençal cousin, caponata is mostly eaten cold or at room temperature. When Sicilians talk about the appetizer, they can be rhapsodic. “He who has not eaten a capontina of eggplant has never reached the antechamber of the terrestrial paradise,” the author Gaetano Falzone writes.

Next month, in Part II, the eggplant arrives in northern Europe. Throughout the Ottoman Empire, the Turks popularize the “lord of vegetables.”

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Eggplant Enjoyment

Agora, the new Turkish/Mediterranean restaurant in Dupont East (1527 17th St.; tel., 202-332-6767), serves some tasty eggplant tapas plates. Patlican Kozleme is a charcoal-smoked eggplant flavored with red and green peppers, olive oil, garlic, and dill. The famous Iman Bayildi (the “Priest Fainted”) stuffs the eggplants luxuriously with onions, tomatoes, pine nuts, and garlic.

Burma (720 6th St., 2nd fl.; tel., 202-638-1280) For an Asian touch, try this restaurant’s eggplant choices, including their “Golden Eggplant” appetizer. The small Asian eggplant is lightly battered in rice powder and fried. It comes with a dish of tamarind dipping sauce (with or without fish sauce). You can also sample sautéed eggplant that has been cooked with sweet onions. One of the restaurant’s distinctive Burmese salads is steamed eggplant tangy with coriander, garlic, and sweet onions and garnished with peanuts.

Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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