Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
In my own limited experience, it seems like there is no middle ground in fondness for eggplant. People either seem to love it or hate it, with no in between.
I don't remember ever eating it growing up. I recall my mom saying she didn't really like it, and it took a long time to prepare, so there would be no eggplant in the Schultz house. My first taste of eggplant was a few years ago when I purchased a 'share' of an organic farm, and each week I got a box filled with whatever was being harvested at the farm. I received plenty of eggplant that summer, and after experimenting with different recipes found that I really liked it.
Though lots of my friends were used to eating eggplant and I thought I was the only one who wasn't, overall Americans are not big consumers of eggplant. The USDA released statistics that show eggplant consumption in the U.S. to be less than one pound per person each year. Compare that with a more widely known and used commodity like tomatoes, which is consumed in fresh and processed forms at a rate of about 92 pounds per person each year.
Eggplant, Solanum melongena, is a member of the Solanaceae family, which includes tomatoes, peppers and potatoes. The Solanaceae family also includes poisonous plants like Deadly Nightshade, so sometimes introducing this crop to a new part of the world was slow, as people believed it to be poisonous.
Scientists believe eggplant is native to Southern India and Sri Lanka. The fruits of wild plants are small, less than about an inch in diameter. Historians believe that eggplant was cultivated primarily in southern and eastern Asia for centuries before Arabs brought eggplant with them while invading Persia in the Middle Ages. This was eggplant's entry into the Mediterranean region and the Western world.
The name 'eggplant' became common in the 1700's, because early European cultivars were yellow or white skinned and the size and shape of goose or hen's eggs. The 'typical' eggplant cultivar grown in Europe and North America today produces an elongated oval fruit with a dark purple skin. In Europe, the eggplant is more commonly referred to as the 'aubergine', a name derived from one of the original Sanskrit names for the fruit. I've noticed this term is sometimes used as a name for the dark purple color reminiscent of many eggplants. I was stumped the first time I read a description in a catalog for something that gave 'aubergine' as one of the color choices–I guess it does sound a lot more exotic and sophisticated than 'dark purple'!
Different eggplant cultivars produce a wide range of shapes, sizes and colors of eggplants. Many of the most unique looking cultivars come from Asia and India, where the crop has been a common food for centuries. Some are egg shaped and sized, while others are larger. 'Chinese' types are elongated like a cucumber, sometimes curving at the end. Colors can range from white, to yellow, green and shades of purple and red. Some cultivars are even striped or have different colors at the stem and blossom end.
When growing eggplant, a good rule of thumb is they need warm weather. Most people grow them from seed indoors then transplant seedlings into the garden, much like you would a tomato. But eggplant transplants are far more sensitive to cold soil and air temperatures than tomatoes. If it is too cold when transplants are set out, they will refuse to grow, and may even show signs of cold injury. One rule of thumb is to plant eggplant at least a week after the average last frost date for your region. In central Illinois this is around May 15th.
When choosing eggplant, look for fruits that are glossy, not dull. If you press on the fruit, it should yield but bounce back. If you press and the dent remains, or the fruit is dull rather than shiny, it's overripe and likely to have bitter flavor and tough seeds.
There is an old wives' tale persistently circulating that 'female' eggplants are less seedy than 'male' eggplants, and vice versa. People argue that the shape of the dimple on the blossom-end determines the sex of the fruit. There is no such thing as a male or female eggplant. Fruits develop from the female flower on a plant, but have no gender. Proper harvesting and storage is what determines fruit quality.
Ideally eggplant should be used immediately after harvesting. Fruits stored in the refrigerator for extended periods tend to deteriorate quickly and develop bitter flavors. I wouldn't be surprised if some people dislike eggplant because their only experience was with one that was bitter.
Eggplant is never eaten raw, it is always cooked. Some cooks prefer to remove much of the water in eggplant to improve the quality of the finished dish. This process involves sprinkling sliced eggplant with salt and soaking up the water that is drawn out. This process is called degorging. This process will also reduce some of the bitterness associated with eggplant, though most new cultivars are not very bitter to start with, if harvested properly.
The 2008 All America Selections Vegetable Award winner happens to be an eggplant cultivar called 'Hansel'. It is well-suited to being grown in containers, and the fruit can be left on the plant longer than other cultivars without becoming overripe and bitter. Look for it to be offered in catalogs and garden centers in 2008.