The unfortunate eggplant has been fighting off a bad reputation for centuries. Some folks thought it would give them leprosy, cancer, insanity, and other maladies. A member of the nightshade family (which also includes potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers), eggplant contains an alkaloid that may cause inflammation but no scientific studies have been able to directly prove it. Eggplant grows on a short bush where the berries sprout and hide beneath large leaves, hence the term “nightshade”.
Technically, eggplant is a fruit (who knew?) and a berry. That’s right, a berry! It contains small edible seeds, so in botanical terms it’s categorized as a berry. How’s that for fun facts? However, in the kitchen, the eggplant behaves most certainly like a vegetable. It is a culinary powerhouse that is versatile, and oh so adaptable.
From the classic Italian eggplant parmigiana, to smoky Middle Eastern baba ganoush, to spicy Chinese stir-fries and Thai-inspired curries, eggplant recipes show up in kitchens all over the world.
The eggplant is known for its ability to soak up flavours and oil. It is a literal sponge. The oil gives eggplant its characteristic creamy, luscious, buttery texture, but you may be afraid to keep adding oil to the skillet as it cooks. The key here is to add a little bit at a time, giving the eggplant an opportunity to absorb the oil.
You may have also heard that eggplant can be bitter. While the young, fresh eggplants are slightly sweet, it’s true that the older an eggplant is, the more bitter it may become. Salting eggplant will dispel the bitterness, as well as bring out its subtle, sweet earthiness. Besides, eggplant doesn’t really taste like much and definitely needs salt to help it along when it comes to flavour.
When grocery shopping, look for eggplants that are heavy, with smooth, shiny, taut skin. Avoid those that are dull and bruised, meaning they are likely old. There are hundreds of varieties of this purple powerhouse, but the most commonly sold are large globe eggplants, long and skinny Japanese and Chinese eggplants, and medium-size Italian eggplants. Globes are great when roasted whole for baba ganoush, sliced and fried for eggplant parmigiana, or chopped for curries. The Japanese and Chinese eggplants don’t have as many seeds as the globes, and have a firmer flesh so are great for slicing and frying. The smaller Italian eggplants are tender and creamy, making them ideal for stuffing and plated individually for a show stopping entrée.
Eggplants don’t like to be stored in the fridge as their skin can get rubbery, so try to cook eggplant the day you buy it. If this isn’t possible, store at room temperature for 2-3 days out of direct sunlight.
To highlight eggplant’s ability to soak up mega flavour, I decided to make it the key ingredient in this Thai-inspired curry. Cubes of eggplant are sautéed in a skillet with oil and aromatics such as onion, garlic, chili, ginger, and spices. Coconut milk makes everything lush, while lime juice adds a brightness that balances out the heat of the chili pepper. I love shrimp here, but you could easily add tofu to keep things vegetarian. I added chopped chard, but handfuls of spinach would work too. There’s a lot of flavour here, and the eggplant surely shines because of it.