18 Interesting Facts About Eggplant

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The eggplant is much more than an ingredient for making moussaka or baba ghanoush. This versatile and unique fruit (yes, it’s technically a fruit!) has a fascinating history and science behind it.

In this article, you’ll discover 18 intriguing eggplant facts about its origins, varieties, uses, nutrition and more. From its importance in folklore and ancient medicine to its chemical properties that react with stainless steel, there’s a lot to uncover about this misunderstood nightshade.

A Look Back at the Origins and History

The early history of eggplant makes for a fascinating story. Here are some of the most interesting tidbits about how eggplant became known as a food.

1. Eggplants Originated in India Over 4,000 Years Ago

The first early record of eggplant cultivation appears in a book of Sanskrit poetry dating back to between 800-200 B.C. In India, the eggplant holds significant religious meaning and is known as the “king of vegetables.”

From India, the plant spread to China and the Middle East along early trade routes like the Silk Road. The Persians, who referred to the eggplant as the “melon of the Bedouins” likely introduced it to Africa.

2. The Eggplant Gets Its Name from Shape, Not Eggs or Color

When the eggplant first came to Europe from the Middle East in medieval times, Europeans gave names reflecting its shape and similarity to goose or hen’s eggs. This is how we ended up with the English word “eggplant” even though the vegetable doesn’t contain any egg.

The French called them “aubergine” derived from the Catalan “alberginia” after the word for bitter apple. In African and Caribbean dialects, it translates to “garden eggs.” But nowhere in history was the eggplant named for its actual white and purple color.

3. Thomas Jefferson Helped Introduce It in the U.S.

Eggplants first arrived on American shores in the early 18th century through the slave trade but remained an obscure exotic fruit. Thomas Jefferson encountered them in Europe and helped introduce them into American kitchen gardens after declaring them to have a “superior merit” in 1786.

Still, the eggplant didn’t gain widespread appeal in the States until the early 20th century when Italian immigrants popularized its culinary use.

Eggplant Varieties and Classifications

Eggplant in the Garden
Eggplant in the Garden by pj_in_oz is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 .

From skinny Japanese varieties to rotund grapes and vibrant purple beauties, eggplants come in many intriguing shapes, sizes and colors.

4. There Are Over 20 Wild Varieties and Shapes

Botanists have identified at least 21 wild species scattered throughout Africa, Asia and Australia. They range dramatically in size, shape, texture and even flavor. Some are large and oblong like the common European aubergine while others are small and round like peaches. A few remain fairly bitter.

Eggplant seeds even vary from white to red to brown, surrounded by a delicate ivory flesh similar to tomatillos.

5. But Most Eggplants Fall Into One of Three Main Categories

For cooking purposes, most eggplants fall under these commercial classifications:

  • Globe: the quintessential egg-shaped classics like Black Bellas with a mild flavor suitable for most eggplant dishes.
  • Elongated: smooth, narrower Asian varieties including slender lavender Chinese eggplants perfect for stir fries or Indian brinjal recipes.
  • Specialty: specialty vegetables like white eggplants, miniature varieties, or heirloom graffiti eggplants.

6. It’s Actually a Berry!

While culinarily treated as a vegetable, scientifically speaking, the eggplant is technically the berry fruit of the perennial Solanum melongena plant. Like the tomato and pepper, it belongs to the nightshade family.

Its ripe flesh and smooth outer skin fit the botanical qualifications for berries. Who knew you could turn berries into baba ghanoush?

Nutrition and Uses

A Scattered Fresh Vegetables

While low in calories, eggplants offer an abundance of nutritional benefits. They also lend themselves well either cooked or even raw to a myriad of interesting applications.

7. Eggplants Are Very Low in Calories

One cup of cubed eggplant contains only 35 calories making eggplants an ideal addition to any weight loss diet. Since over 90% of its weight comes from water, eggplants are also quite hydrating.

8. They’re Packed with Fiber

Eggplants provide a whopping 10% of your recommended daily fiber intake per cup. As a soluble fiber, that nourishment helps regulate digestion and gut health. Their skin also contains insoluble fiber.

9. Rich in Anthocyanins

Eggplants possess a class of polyphenol antioxidants called anthocyanins that give them their beautiful purple hue. Anthocyanins combat inflammation which may help lower risk for chronic diseases.

Some white varieties lack anthocyanins but contain other phenolic compounds. All eggplant skins house at least some protective antioxidants.

10. Can Be Prepared Many Ways

From stewing to roasting whole in their skins to charring directly over a flame, eggplants are immensely versatile. They work nicely baked, fried, grilled, sautéed or even eaten raw.

Eggplant purees like baba ghanoush also populate menus around the world. They bring a meaty, silky texture to vegetarian dishes.

11. Often Substituted for Meat

Due to its hearty, dense consistency when cooked, eggplant stands in for meat in many cultures’ cuisines. It’s shape even resembles a steak!

Eggplant works well as the protein main in vegan and vegetarian recipes. The neutral flavor blends well with bolder seasonings.

12. Key Ingredient in Moussaka

As the star of Greek moussaka, thin eggplant slices become fork-tender under the rich tomato and lamb sauce. They soak up the surrounding flavors beautifully.

Fun fact: British prime minister Margaret Thatcher once claimed to have learned to cook solely to make moussaka for her husband Dennis!

Quirks and Unexpected Properties

purple and green vegetable on blue plastic container

Alongside its edible appeal, the remarkable eggplant has some chemical peculiarities you likely didn’t know about!

13. Browning Happens Incredibly Fast

When you slice into an eggplant, you’ll notice it starts oxidizing and browning faster than apples and other produce. This is due to abundant polyphenol enzymes reacting with air.

To minimize discoloration and bitterness, coat raw eggplant with lemon juice or submerge slices in water after cutting.

14. Eggplants Are Not Usually Self-Pollinating

Due to their sticky pollen, eggplants need outside help moving grain from the male to female flower parts. In home gardens, the absence of wind or insects makes hand pollination with a brush necessary.

Commercial growers introduce beehives near fields to ensure proper eggplant pollination for fruit production.

15. It Leaves Black Residue on Knives

The dark marks leftover on your cutting board are due to traces of nasunin pigments being transferred. To limit this or remove stains, scrub with baking soda paste and hot water.

The good news? Nasunin is a potent antioxidant so embrace the mess!

16. Responsible for “Eggplant Dermatitis”

The anthocyanins that generate deep purple hues in eggplant skins and flowers also can cause contact dermatitis resembling a chemical burn rash when juices touch skin. Cooking generally neutralizes the irritant.

Wear gloves when prepping and wash thoroughly after handling raw eggplant to avoid a reaction.

17. Causes Pitting in Stainless Steel

Raw eggplant contains oxalic acid similar to tomatoes, which damages kitchen knives and pans if prolonged contact occurs. Acid leeches chrome molecules in stainless steel creating tiny black etched holes called pitting.

So don’t let your sliced eggplants linger on metal surfaces and promptly wash utensils after use.

Health Myths and Concerns

With all the positives eggplants provide, a few negative myths also follow these fruits around.

18. Eating Eggplant Does NOT Cause Insomnia or Madness

Folklore would have you believe consuming dishes with eggplant leads to insanity or never being able to sleep again. This myth originated in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries likely due to visual similarities with deadly nightshade berries.

In reality, eggplants contain only trace amounts of solanine toxin that’s bitter and harmless once cooked. Nor do they alter sleep patterns or psychology. Rest easy!

Key Takeaways

In review, here are the top lessons the princely eggplant can teach us:

  • Eggplants originated over 4,000 years ago in India and spread via trade routes to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.
  • Their name derives from their resemblance to goose eggs, not actual eggs or color.
  • Botanically, eggplants qualify as big, berry fruits belonging to the nightshade family.
  • With just 35 calories per cup, they deliver abundant nutrients like fiber, anthocyanins, and phenols.
  • Eggplants work well cooked in many ways or even raw due to their versatile texture.
  • They fill the meaty role in vegetarian dishes and as moussaka’s starring ingredient.
  • From staining potential to pollination needs, eggplants have some chemical quirks.
  • But myths about sleep issues or mental impacts are unfounded.

Hopefully, you feel a little more “sage about eggplant” after learning these 18 fascinating bits of history, science, and folklore!

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you know when eggplant is ripe and ready to pick?

Ripe eggplants should have smooth, taut, shiny skin without cuts or blemishes. They will feel heavy for their size in your hand rather than hollow and light. Press gently on the outside to test—overripe eggplants dent while firm ripe ones bounce back.

Why does eggplant sometimes taste bitter?

Eggplants develop bitterness due to overripening, temperature stress, drought conditions or seed variety. To prevent bitterness, harvest while the skin still outshines the stem, cut out any spongy pockets promptly and incorporate acid like lemon juice.

Are the seeds edible or do you need to remove them?

Eggplant seeds are completely edible, though some varieties have more than others. Unless adding texture, most cooks avoid large clusters. But for simplicity’s sake, the small soft seeds can be eaten without problems. Some report they’re delicious toasted!

What are good eggplant substitutes if you dislike the taste?

For eggplant haters swapping into recipes, go for mushrooms like portobello caps, zucchini or yellow squash rounds, tomatoes, or thick potato slices. Eggplant absorbs surrounding flavors easily so played down. Adjust seasonings to complement whatever veggie you select.

How do you grow eggplant successfully in home gardens?

Start eggplants indoors in early spring before transplanting into garden beds after any frost danger passes. Select small, early harvest varieties and space plants 24-36 inches apart for airflow. Add trellises for vertical growth. Introduce bees nearby for pollination!

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