You Are What You Eat: Aubergine

The aubergine, belonging to the nightshade plant family Solanaceae, has long been an enigmatic and versatile fruit. Often mistaken as a vegetable, this deep purple, glossy-skinned berry offers a unique culinary experience. In this article, we explore the intriguing history, cultural significance, nutritional benefits, and culinary applications of the aubergine.

Nightshade Vegetables: Unraveling the Mystique

Nightshade plants, including tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and aubergines, belong to the Solanaceae family. While over 2000 varieties of nightshade plants exist, only a few are commonly consumed as food. Additionally, spices such as cayenne pepper, crushed red pepper, chilli powder, and paprika derive from nightshade plants. Curiously, even tobacco falls under this botanical family. The origin of the name “nightshade” remains unclear, but one theory suggests it refers to their preference for shade and blooming during the night.

One characteristic that sets nightshades apart is their content of alkaloids, including solanine, a natural insecticide. While ingesting significant amounts of alkaloids can be harmful, aubergines contain only small quantities. In fact, one would need to consume over 15 large aubergines in a single sitting to experience even mild side effects. Despite some fad diets demonising nightshades due to their alkaloid content, scientific research has not conclusively linked their consumption to increased inflammation. On the contrary, there is strong evidence suggesting the anti-inflammatory properties of these plant foods.

The Aubergine: A Fruit Masquerading as a Vegetable

Technically classified as a fruit, the aubergine is commonly treated as a vegetable in culinary contexts. Botanically, it qualifies as a berry, growing in a range of sizes and colors. From small globe-sized varieties to large oblong or oval shapes, aubergines offer diverse options for culinary exploration. While the most familiar color is purple, they are also available in red, jade green, and black, each exhibiting unique flavors and textures.

Eggplant, aubergine, and brinjal are some of the names used globally to refer to this fruit. Its nomenclature varies depending on the region. For example, it is called “eggplant” in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines, while “aubergine” is preferred in the United Kingdom and Ireland. “Brinjal” is the term used in India, Singapore, Malaysia, and South Africa.

When selecting aubergines, it is essential to choose firm and heavy ones with smooth, glossy skin and an intense purple hue. Withered, bruised, or discoloured aubergines should be avoided. Lightness indicates an older, woody fruit. Once cooked, the inner white-yellowish flesh becomes soft and tender, offering a distinctive, slightly smoky taste. However, if not prepared well, aubergines can turn out spongy, bitter, or bland. But when cooked to perfection, they become a delicious treat, with diverse textures and flavours.

Newstalk Aubergine

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Culinary Heritage and the Aubergine’s Journey

Originating in South Asia, aubergines were first cultivated in China around 5 BC. The Moorish invaders introduced them to Spain, where their cultivation initially flourished in Andalusia. From Spain, the aubergine rapidly spread throughout the Mediterranean region, becoming a staple in various cuisines. Classic dishes like Greek moussaka, Italian eggplant parmigiana, and Middle Eastern baba ganoush prominently feature this fruit. The Mediterranean region’s culinary traditions have greatly influenced the preparation and pairing of aubergines with ingredients like olive oil, tomatoes, basil, tzatziki, courgettes, natural yogurt, onions, and garlic.

Aubergines have found their way into a wide array of dishes and recipes. They are frequently baked, grilled, fried, or boiled, used as a garnish, and incorporated into stews, curries, roulades, and dips. The possibilities are endless when it comes to exploring the culinary potential of this versatile fruit.

Aubergine as a Meat Substitute: Unleashing Umami Undertones

One remarkable quality of aubergine is its ability to serve as a savoury meat substitute in vegan and vegetarian cuisines. It’s texture and bulkiness make it a convincing alternative. When cooked correctly, aubergine undergoes a transformation from a vegetal ingredient to a meaty delight.

Roasting aubergines is a simple yet effective method to achieve this transition. It helps preserve some shape and texture without turning the fruit into mush. The skin, which is edible, should be removed after roasting. To prepare roasted aubergine, one should cut off the stem, slice it lengthways, score the flesh with a knife, and drizzle it with oil, sea salt, and pepper. The result is a tender and flavourful treat.

Umami, often referred to as the fifth taste, plays a significant role in aubergine’s meat-like appeal. Unlike salty, sweet, sour, or bitter flavours, umami represents a subtle yet distinct savoury taste. Aubergine’s rich and complex umami flavour develops as it cooks, enhancing the overall culinary experience.

Nutritional Benefits and Beyond

Aside from its culinary prowess, aubergine boasts an array of health benefits. It is naturally fat-free, low in calories, and high in dietary fibre. Furthermore, it is considered a high-protein food, with 24% of its calories derived from protein. This protein content contributes to the maintenance of muscle mass and normal bone health.

Per 100 grams of raw aubergine, it contains approximately 15 calories, 0.9 grams of protein, 2.2 grams of carbohydrates, 0.4 grams of fat, and 2 grams of fibre. These nutritional values make aubergines an excellent choice for salads, stews, and various other dishes, promoting a balanced and healthy diet.

Culinary Tips and Techniques: Unraveling the Secrets

To fully appreciate the potential of aubergines, it is essential to understand some culinary tips and techniques associated with their preparation. One intriguing aspect is the historical practice of salting aubergines to remove bitterness. While ancient varieties of aubergines were incredibly bitter, modern cultivars have largely eliminated this trait. Salting aubergines is now primarily done to extract excess moisture rather than to mitigate bitterness.

Salting helps break down some of the cell walls in an aubergine, making it less likely to absorb excessive oil during cooking. Additionally, it aids in seasoning the fruit from the inside out, ensuring a balanced flavour throughout. Although salting aubergines is no longer a strict requirement, it remains a useful technique to enhance the overall cooking process.

Exploring the World of Aubergine: Dishes and Recipes

Aubergines are celebrated in numerous dishes and recipes worldwide. One notable example is Baba Ganoush, a traditional Lebanese eggplant dip. This creamy and savoury delicacy boasts a smoky and silky texture, achieved through a combination of tahini, garlic, olive oil, salt, and citrus flavours. Served with pita bread and crisp vegetables, Baba Ganoush is a beloved Middle Eastern dish that showcases the versatility of aubergines.

Another renowned dish is Moussaka, a Greek casserole consisting of layered aubergines, minced meat, tomatoes, onions, and spices. Topped with a creamy béchamel sauce and baked to perfection, Moussaka offers a hearty and indulgent experience. Vegetarian versions of Moussaka are also popular, substituting the meat with lentils, chickpeas, or mushrooms.

For those seeking a lighter option, Grilled Aubergine Salad is an excellent choice. Sliced aubergines are grilled until tender and combined with fresh vegetables, herbs, feta cheese, and a tangy dressing. This vibrant salad is packed with flavours and textures, making it a refreshing addition to any meal.

Conclusion

From its mysterious nightshade origins to its culinary prominence worldwide, the aubergine continues to captivate food enthusiasts and chefs alike. Its versatility, unique flavour profile, and potential as a meat substitute make it an indispensable ingredient in a variety of cuisines. Whether it’s roasted, grilled, fried, or baked, the aubergine offers a wealth of possibilities for creating delicious and wholesome dishes. 

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