Eggplant are native to the general SouthEast Asian region of India and modern day Pakistan and was first domesticated there over 4000 years ago, especially in the vicinities of Burma and Assam. In its home region, the Eggplant is used in many local dishes and carries a wide range of names in Bengalise, Hindustani, Urdu, Sanskrit and other local languages. In fact, the Eggplant's true species name "Melongena" is an ancient name for Eggplant in Sanskrit. Within its home region, the purple fruited Eggplant were the first to be domesticated. In time, Eggplant soon spread into neighboring China by about 500 B.C. and became a culinary favorite to generations of Chinese emperors. About 500 A.D., a Chinese scholar put up the first written record of Eggplant and states that they had become popular among all classes of the Chinese people some two centuries earlier. The Chinese viewed the Eggplant differently than the Indians did and soon developed their own unique varieties. In particular, they preferred smaller fruited Eggplant, as well as differing shapes and colors. From India and Pakistan, the Eggplant soon spread West into the Middle East and into the Lower Stans regions, as far west as Egypt and northward into Turkey. Arabic records of Eggplant exist from the 9th, 10th and 12th centuries and Eggplant are an important part of Arabic, Turkish and Persian cuisine. The Turks alone are believed to have over 1000 native recipes calling for the use of Eggplant in varying ways. In the 4th through 7th centuries A.D., the Moors introduced the Eggplant to Spain and the vegetable soon spread throughout Europe. The 16th century Spaniards had great respect for the Eggplant and believed its fruit to be a powerful aphrodisiac, hence they referred to them as "Berengenas" or the "Apple of Love". The Italians too, held the Eggplant in very regard and called them "Melanzana". Northern Europeans, however, were not so kind to the Eggplant. Albert of Cologne described the Eggplant in the 13th Century and referred to them as "Mala Insana", a corruption of the Italian name "Melanzana". By the 16th century, Eggplant were widely known in Europe as "Mad Apples" and were believed to induce insanity if consumed. Despite this, a few people did respect the Eggplant and in 1550, both purple and yellow varieties were introduced to Germany from Naples, Italy. By 1600, white Eggplants, as well those with ash-colored and brown colored fruit, as well as those with pear shaped, round, oblong and long, thin fruit were also known in Germany. The English were responsible for coining the name "Eggplant" in regards to a variety with egg shaped, white fruit that they became familiar with, yet strangely, they refer to them today by the French name of Abergine, which is a corruption of the Catalonian name "Alberginia". Although the Spanish actually introduced the Eggplant to the Americas, in particular, to Brazil as early as 1650, Eggplant were still unknown to the United States for another 150 years. Thomas Jefferson introduced them to the United States in 1806 from a friend in France and held them in high regard. In fact, even today, a prickly, white Eggplant is still grown in Jefferson's preserved Virginia Garden at Monticello. Despite the fact that Jefferson, who was not only a founding father of the United States, but was also a legendary horticulturist who championed the Eggplant, the vegetable was primarily grown in the United States as an ornamental plant until about 50 years ago. Eggplant also reached Australia, and were introduced there in 1850 by a nurseryman by the name of John Baptist who obtained the seeds from a friend who spent some time in India. Despite this, the Eggplant was largely a neglected species in Australia until scores of Europeans immigrated to Australia in the 1950's and popularized them. Eggplant come in a wide array of shapes, sizes and colors, which makes them an outstanding edible landscape plant. If you are not a fan of supermarket Eggplant, we would encourage you to try some of our varieties in your garden this year. When selected, grown and prepared properly, they will make anyone become a true Eggplant fan and they will open you up to a whole new world of culinary delight!
The author, K Spurling, is a seedsman and professional plant breeder by trade.
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