Melanzana, eggplant, aubergine or whatever you call it is the quintessential Mediterranean vegetable. Exotic, sumptuous, voluptuous and irresistible if cooked properly.
Many people don’t understand melanzana, they find it strange and hate the taste, but if prepared well, it can become the crowning glory of any dish.
The Melanzana is a precious fruit of the Sicilian summer. Every year, I impatiently wait for its plum, white flesh to ripen and chop it into crunchy cubes. I look forward to frying it up to make the signature pasta alla Norma covered in lavish shavings or oven-dried ricotta cheese.
I occasionally slice it like French fries and make my own Sicilian fries. Or cook it with other summer vegetables like tomatoes, capsicum and onions to become a classic Sicilian caponata fry-up.
My favourite Sicilian dish has to be, hands down, the involtini di melanzane. A simple oven-baked pasta dish prepared in the summer takes slices of deep-fried eggplant. It wraps them around long, cooked, tomato sauce-drenched, freshly made Sicilian Maccarone. The melanzane wraps are placed into a baking dish, topped with more sauce and a generous topping of grated ricotta cheese which simmers and melts in the oven.
The aubergine is so versatile you can eat it fried, stuffed, diced, boiled, sliced, grilled, dried, braised, mashed, pickled, pureed, or breaded and fried. It is an essential ingredient in Italian ratatouille and Middle Eastern baba ganoush.
Eggplant is one of the “sponges” of the edible kingdom, and “salting” or “soaking” before cooking helps reduce its natural absorption tendencies and removes any lingering bitterness.
The plant comes from the nightshade family of plants, which also includes the potato, capsicum peppers and tomatoes. Originally from India, China and Sri Lanka. This spiny, bitter, purple or white oval-shaped vegetable with distinctly spongy white pulp has been cultivated for over 1500 years.
The Latin/French term aubergine originally derives from the historical city of Vergina (Βεργίνα) in Greece. The aubergine eggplant is estimated to have reached Greece around 325 BC after the death of Alexander the Great in Babylon. Discovering this new vegetable during his conquest, Alexander the Great wanted to bring it back to his country, a wish his army kept, bringing the seeds back after his death.
As trade routes opened, eggplant was introduced to Europe by the Arabs and transported to Africa by the Persians. The Spaniards carried it with them to the New World. By the early 1800s, white and purple varieties could be found in American gardens.
In 5th Century China, the plant was made into a black dye used by aristocratic ladies to stain their teeth, which gleamed like metal when polished with eggplant colouring.
Also, in China, it was a requirement of a bride’s dowry that a woman must have acquired at least twelve eggplant recipes before her wedding day.
In Turkey, the “imam bayildi,” a tasty treat of stuffed eggplant simmered in olive oil, is said to have made a religious leader swoon in ecstasy.
When first introduced to Italy, people believed that anyone who ate the “mad apple” was sure to go insane.
The plant is often misunderstood by many people who simply don’t like the taste or develop an irrational aversion to it. Still, as with any exotic acquired taste, you either love or hate it.
The eggplant emoji has become a controversial suggestive sexual symbol of sexting. When paired with the mouth emoji, it can suggest oral sex. Together with the peach emoji, it represents a female buttox or genitalia and symbolises anal or vaginal sex. By itself, the long purple eggplant symbol represents a penis.
Legendary Italian movie director Federico Fellini hated the melanzana and once told an elaborate erotic tall tale explaining the reason behind his aversion. Apparently, when Fellini was a young boy with peeping tom tendencies, he witnessed a lady using an aubergine to pleasure herself. It was an experience which left him traumatised and unable to stand the sight of the vegetable.
This certainly makes you look at an aubergine in a totally different way.