Kosher history of an outcast vegetable

In the 16th century, Italians thought the aubergine drove you mad. Now, they do some of the best eggplant dishes in the world. That’s thanks to the Jews.


By Ruth Joseph, November 6, 2008
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Deep purple: the aubergine is one of our most versatile vegetables

Deep purple: the aubergine is one of our most versatile vegetables

This extraordinary vegetable, with its polished purple exterior, begs to be cooked and, at the moment, British aubergines are seasonal and delicious. Now they are accepted as succulent, filling vegetables but there were times when aubergines were regarded with suspicion.

For centuries, aubergines - like potatoes, tomatoes and peppers, a member of the nightshade family -were eaten in India and other Asian countries. Europeans remained sceptical - maybe because of the deadly nightshade connection.

While Italian Jews ate aubergines, others feared if they followed their example, they would go mad. Hence the Italian name melanzana, meaning "mad apple". And even though the Jews were expelled from southern Italy in the 1500s and escaped to the north, gradually, Italians up and down the peninsular - probably tempted by the looks and fragrance of their dishes and the ease with which this prolific vegetable could be grown - learnt their recipes and cultivation techniques, and were finally converted.

It used to be said that it was necessary to cut the aubergine and salt it to remove the bitter juices. But modern horticulture has produced wonderful varieties that do not need that process. However if the aubergine is not treated before frying, it will absorb oil like a sponge and can be indigestible.

But there is a way around this dilemma. When I was in Israel for a wedding, I tasted the most wonderful aubergine spread - creamy, speckled with a smokey sweetness and depth of flavour, but not rich. I was told that the aubergine had been roasted over a wood fire, like a barbecue.

We cannot reproduce that taste but I have managed something quite close by smearing a little olive oil over the outer skin of the aubergine, sprinkling it with coarse salt and either placing it in a roasting tin, or if you have a gas flame, placing the aubergine directly on the flame to char-grill. Then place in a medium oven for approximately one hour and bake until the aubergine is soft and tender.

Alongside the aubergine I add some halved onions (1 large onion per aubergine), 1 clove garlic and the skins left on. Although some cooks peel the aubergine, I leave it whole. Just remove the stalk and process it with the skinned, roasted onion, the peeled garlic, a 25g, 1oz fresh coriander, a teaspoon of ground cumin and a good tablespoon of tahina for the most gorgeous baba ganoush you will ever taste.

Aubergines are flexible vegetables which combine easily with other vegetables to make satisfying main-course meals.

For a delicious and healthy aubergine and spinach kugel, for four people, peel and slice about 700g, 1½ lbs aubergines. Discard stalk. Cover and simmer in boiling water with a teaspoon of salt for approximately 8 minutes. Wash 450g, 1lb fresh spinach, wilt in the water residue. Stir well. Peel and chop 1 large onion and sweat in 1 dessertspoon olive oil until transparent. Remove, drain and mash the aubergine flesh, chop the spinach adding 1 tablespoon of vegetable stock powder. Leave to cool. Then beat in 3 medium free-range eggs, the onion and 150g, 5½ oz grated cheese - mozzarella, feta, plain cheddar or low-cal cottage cheese, plus freshly chopped chives, basil or a few fresh thyme leaves; season with freshly milled black pepper. Turn into a 1.7 litre, 3 pint dish, top with a handful of pine-nuts and bake in a medium oven Gas mark 3 - 4, 170ºC, 325ºF, for 1 hour or until well set. Serve with mashed potato - baked golden in the oven at the same time.

Aubergine and coconut curry

Serves 4 - 6

Ingredients
450g, 1 lb aubergine - roasted previously - scoop out flesh and chop or add the skin if you wish
1 large onion peeled and chopped
1 clove garlic peeled and crushed with 1 teaspoon of salt
1 green chilli left whole - remove before serving - add more chillis, or chop, if you like a hot taste
1 medium cauliflower cut into florets
1 tablespoon sunflower oil
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon garam masala
12 curry leaves
200ml, 7fl oz hot water + 6 strands (roughly) saffron
1 tin light coconut milk
25g, 1oz, chopped coriander leaves for curry plus 25g, 1oz, for garnish

Method
 Sweat the onion with the oil in a pan with a tight lid, adding the coriander, turmeric, garam masala and chilli. Stir well.
 When the onion is transparent add the crushed garlic, the cooked aubergine, the cauliflower florets and the saffron water. Replace the lid and leave to steam.
 After 10 minutes, add the coconut milk, the curry leaves, and half the chopped coriander leaves, stir well and leave to simmer for another 15 minutes until the whole mixture is fragrant and creamy.
 Serve garnished with more coriander leaves and basmati rice.

Last updated: 6:12pm, November 6 2008