Eggplant (Solanum melongena) is a member of the nightshade family, bearing edible fruit that range in color and size according to cultivar. The fruit of the most popular European and American varieties are fairly large, reaching a size of 5 to 10 inches (12 to 25 cm) long and 2 to 4 inches (6 to 9 cm) wide. They are deep purple in color and filled will tiny seeds. Other cultivars may be long and skinny or small and round. In addition to deep purplish black, the fruit may be green, white, lavender, reddish purple, yellow, or striated.
The plant is native to Sri Lanka and southern India, and it is believed to have appeared in the West sometime during the 16th century, likely as a result of Arabic influence. It is now a favorite of home gardeners in many regions globally. On a commercial scale, China currently leads the world in production of the fruit, with India coming in second. Japan, Turkey, and Egypt also produce a significant percentage of the world’s crop.
The Sanskrit name for eggplant is vatinganah, the French and British know it as the aubergine, and the Hindi name, brinjal, is recognized in South Africa as well. The versatile fruit is featured in cuisines around the world, and international dishes like the French ratatouille, the Italian melanzane alla parmigiana, and the Middle Eastern baba ghanuj have exceeded borders to become global favorites. It figures prominently in Indian cuisine, where it is prepared in a variety of ways from curries to chutneys.
Eggplant is not eaten raw, as its flesh is quite bitter and the texture is unpleasant. It may be stewed with tomatoes, grilled, roasted, battered and deep-fried, or stuffed and baked. The fruit will absorb a great deal of liquid and fat as it is cooking. To prevent this, and to eliminate bitterness, it can be degorged, which involves slicing the raw fruit, salting the slices, then allowing them to drain in a colander or on paper towels for a half hour before rinsing and patting dry. The seeds and skin of the eggplant are edible and usually do not need to be removed prior to cooking and eating. An exception to this is in the case of a fruit that is overmature or that has been sitting around for a few days in the refrigerator.
Although it is not as packed with nutrients as some other fruits and vegetables are, eggplant is a good source of fiber. One cup (99 g) of the cooked fruit provides only 35 calories and contains antioxidants such as chlorogenic acid, which may help to reduce the risk of colon and liver cancer.
Eggplants are extremely sensitive to cold. In temperate climates, the seedlings must be planted after the danger of frost has passed. The fruit does not store well and therefore should be used soon after harvesting, although a surplus of homegrown fruit may be water-blanched and frozen. They are available fresh in stores year-round.