“Strange Vegetables”

‘’His hard-pressed father’s cooking and the pie-and-chips regime of his student days could not have prepared him for the strange vegetables – the aubergines, green and red peppers, courgettes and mange touts – that came regularly before him.’ ~ Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach

Roasted tomatoes and eggplant

Long gone are the days when Anglo-Australians ate a beige diet of meat (aka lamb chops) and three over-cooked vegetables, notoriously carrots, peas and potatoes.  Today’s culinary world is far more sophisticated and metropolitan, as we eagerly absorb every new cuisine that comes our way with the excitement of archaeologists finding a new tomb in Egypt.

When I first started dating the One & Only, the Mediterranean dishes on which he grew up had played no part at our family table, but they proved a wonderful introduction to a fresher, simpler and tastier diet. Remember the movie ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding?’ and the scene where poor Toula, ‘the swarthy six-year-old with sideburns’ is laughed at by the ‘blond, delicate girls with their Wonder Bread sandwiches for eating ‘moose kaka.’ That was me. Even sweet and sour pork made me cringe. Yet, by the time Toula and her father’s cure-all ‘Windex’ appeared on the scene, we cringed in sympathy at the unkindness of those ignorant school girls.

Recently, I found my feet returning to a favourite Greek restaurant on Rundle Street, Adelaide, with a craving for anything containing eggplant. Named for the Greek God of Love, ‘Eros’ has been part of the landscape for more than 25 years, and the chef there still makes the best moussaka I have ever eaten. Unexpectedly chilly in early March, I found a table inside and curled over my book while I waited for my order. A good book, a glass of wine and an excellent moussaka. Who could ask for more?

The chef at Eros creates a mouth-watering moussaka (pr. MOO-sah-kah) of chargrilled eggplant and zucchini, layered with potato and a rich ground beef sauce, iced with a creamy cheese bechamel, then baked. Accompanied by a Greek salad, I ate as slowly as possible and savoured every mouthful. It was sumptuous.

Call it what you will – aubergine or eggplant, melanzana or brinjal, talong or patlidžan – the eggplant has been popular in Arabic and Mediterranean countries for centuries.   According to a paper by Weese & Bohs, although the eggplant ‘has been cultivated for centuries in the Old World,’ it actually originated in Africa, and later dispersed throughout the Middle East to Asia. The Arabs used it prolifically, stuffed it with pinenuts or made it into a dip with tahini and lemon juice, served with pita bread. When they brought it across the Mediterranean to Sicily and Spain, it was treated with suspicion for centuries. Nicknamed melanzane – ‘unsound apple’ or ‘vulgar plant’ – it was considered peasant food until well into the nineteenth century. The Sicilians, nonetheless, adored their Caponata, made with peppers, melanzane and zucchini and served as a side dish. Then, of course, they have their own, vegetarian version of moussaka, using eggplant, cheese and the ubiquitous tomato and calling it Parmigiana di Melanzane.

 The pear-shaped, purple-skinned “Black Beauty” eggplant is probably the most familiar in Australia, but in the Philippines, I quickly became used the long thin variety – Japanese or finger eggplant – which appeared regularly in soups and salads, omelettes and main courses. Yet, despite its predominance in savoury dishes, eggplant is officially, like the tomato, a fruit, not a vegetable.

Yasmin Newman, in her book “7000 Islands; A Food Portrait of the Philippines,” tells us that she once served an eggplant salad to a Lebanese friend ‘who said it was just like the eggplant salads she ate growing up.’  Then there is tortang talong, made from smoky eggplant cooked over the coals and coated in egg. Yum! And the Ottoman imam bayildi or stuffed eggplant is, likewise, absolutely scrumptious.

Nicholas Clee, in his book ‘Don’t Sweat the Aubergine,’ reminds the home cook not to keep eggplant, spuds or tomatoes in the fridge, as the cold may keep them longer but will spoil the quality. Instead, find a cool place out of the sun to store for no more than two days before eating. He also dispels the long-held belief that aubergines need to be salted, rinsed and dried before cooking, to remove the bitterness. Perhaps aubergines were once bitter, but these days, that gene appears to have been bred out. Either way, I haven’t bothered to do all that prep since my first explorations of cooking with eggplant, and there have – so far – been no ill effects. Clee has experimented and discovered that if you cook the aubergine in olive oil, and baked in the oven until it is soft, salting is unnecessary.  Just be aware it will soak up a lot of oil, and it really isn’t nice if only par-cooked. The skin will be leathery, the inside rubbery and tasteless. A Turkish cooking lesson some years ago, taught me to bake aubergine in their skins till you can spoon out the flesh, soft and richly flavoured, or burn the skins over an open flame for a smoky flavour. And for the Aussies, just slice it lengthwise and grill it on the BBQ. Easy peasy, and perfect with lamb chops!

While some varieties of aubergine do look egg shaped – hence the name “eggplant” – these fruits of the nightshade family come in a surprising variety of shapes. And colours. For example, the Turkish Orange is a round variety, like a tomato, and the clue to its colour is in the name. Then there is the Snowy, which is pear shaped but white. The Thais produce a dense, round eggplant, like a golf ball except purple, which is terrific in coconut milk curries. The sweeter, smaller ‘Fairy Tale,’ with its attractive purple and white stripes, is excellent tossed into stir-fries or sautés, or skewered and grilled. More familiar perhaps, is the deep plum-coloured ‘Israeli,’ perfect for babaganoush.

But the family favourite is made by my father-in-law for every family event:  the eggplant slice, dipped in flour and egg and fried to make a very moreish canape or snack.

To those familiar with vibrators or texting, eggplants have recently added sexual connotations to their repertoire, but personally, I like them better as food. And for those who want to know the health benefits, well, provided you are not allergic to them, eggplants are a great source of vitamins and minerals. As they are rich in fiber, they aid digestion, help control blood sugar, and lower the risk of heart disease. Eggplants are also a natural laxative, and will help to relieve constipation. Finally, they are high in iron, so can prevent anaemia. And, of course, they taste great. The downside? They can make you quite windy!

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