The delectable, yet mystical eggplant is known by many names, some quite unflattering. When Europeans first encountered the fruit, it had gained an intimidating reputation with its “mad apple” label. Even after the eggplant developed secure Mediterranean roots, it was still called mala insana, meaning “bad egg, mad apple, or apple of madness.”
The eggplant is considered a vegetable but is botanically a fruit. Early varieties of eggplant were smaller and white, resembling eggs, hence the name.
The ancient ancestors of eggplant grew wild in India and were first cultivated in China in the 5th century B.C. Eggplant was introduced to Africa before the Middle Ages and then into Italy, the country with which it has long been associated, in the 14th century. It subsequently spread throughout Europe and the Middle East and, centuries later, was brought to the Western Hemisphere by European explorers. Today, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, China and Japan are the leading growers of eggplant.
Today, thanks to Asian and Southern European influences, it is finding its way into more and more dishes. It is a good meat substitute which also makes it attractive to vegetarians. Eggplant actually has a quite bland flavor, but it soaks up flavors of accompanying foods, herbs, and spices like a sponge, much like tofu. Eggplant is a very good source of dietary fiber, vitamin B1, and copper. It is a good source of manganese, vitamin B6, niacin, potassium, folate, and vitamin K. Eggplant also contains phytonutrients such as nasunin and chlorogenic acid.