Aubergines

Appears in

Fusion: A Culinary Journey

Fusion

By Peter Gordon

Published 2010

In India, it is often referred to as the ‘king of vegetables’, and it’s no wonder as it is such a brilliant ingredient. Just like the tomato, it’s actually the berry of a fruit from the nightshade family - it’s not technically a vegetable. Unlike the tomato, potato and chilli (all members of the nightshade clan), the aubergine originates not in the Andes, but in India where they’re called brinjak. In Australia they’re known as eggplant, Italy names them melanzano and Thailand has makreua. These days a lot of the bitterness associated with the more usual violet- and-purple-skinned variety has been bred out, and they can be cooked without disgorging them. However, some still need to be sliced and soaked in cold salted water to help remove this trait. In Thai cuisine, the bitterness can in fact be one of the appealing aspects to them, especially for the pea-eggplant. You’ll find these added to rich coconut curries, and when you bite into one of them it creates a wonderful contrast to the curry, but perhaps one that takes getting used to. Thailand also has the maeuk, a hairy golden eggplant that is lovely eaten raw in salads - just make sure you scrape the hairs off with the back of a knife before slicing and serving straight away before it discolours.

Aubergines have been lovingly embraced by various cuisines throughout the world, although mainly in countries of temperate climate where they can easily be grown. Unlike the tomato, it’s not documented how the aubergine got from one place to another, but it would no doubt have been a slow process of Asian migrants taking their favourite foods with them to new places and traders swapping and selling goods and produce. It seems they have been grown and eaten in China and Japan for many centuries, as well as in Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Thailand and Malaysia. At some point they entered Europe and that spawned the creation of many recognisable dishes such as ratatouille from France, Greece’s moussaka and Italy’s melanzane alla Parmigiano. In the Levant, there are numerous versions of babaganoush - which is made by grilling the aubergine to give it a smoky flavour, then chopping the pulp and mixing it with lemon, garlic, tahini paste and sometimes strained yoghurt. The Turks also dry out smallish ones and sell them in strings in the marketplace, and all you need do is rehydrate them in cold water, stuff with a minced-lamb-based stew and bake slowly in the oven - delicious.

When I was a teenage apprentice chef living in Melbourne, Australia, I can remember my sisters cooking a dish that seemed so thoroughly exotic to me at the time. They sliced eggplant (as we called it) and salted it, then fried it and layered it with a sauce made from canned tomatoes, tonnes of garlic and raw grated carrots. It seemed crazy at the time, but that dish is what firmly established my love for eggplant - something I’d not eaten previously. I remember eating a wonderful dish of charcoal-grilled, sweet miso-marinated Japanese eggplant at a restaurant called Kuni’s - the texture was incredibly silky and soft and the flavour rich, almost buttery. In India, in 1986, I found myself on a camel in the Thar desert for three days, setting out from the desert town of Jaiselmere. Food on that trip, cooked by the camel man for just the two of us and our two camels, was pretty basic. Every night we’d have freshly made chapattis served with a topping of raw onion, unripe tomatoes, and bitter brinjal. I have to say if it wasn’t for the scenery (wild peacocks flying for brief stretches, waking up to see a scorpion a few centimetres from my face, and herds of small, wild deer-like creatures) I might have gone off them forever, but I simply put it down to the fact that it was a culinary experience.

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