The Wandering Eggplant
by Joan Nathan
Eggplant is the leitmotif of my culinary career. Throughout my life of eating in homes and restaurants around the world and writing about ethnic foods, eggplant has always been there, calling me to order it from the menu, begging me to request the recipe from the cook. This member of the nightshade family has adapted over place and time, just as I have, just as the Jewish people have. I love eggplant for its flavor, its parallels to Jewish history—and my own.
Originating in China or India, eggplant traveled along the Silk Road in seeds carried in the pockets of Jewish and Arab traders perhaps as early as the eighth century. When they arrived in Italy, France and Iraq, the seeds were planted and grew. The traders’ wives, guided by only vague directions from their husbands, infused the eggplant with familiar spices, creating new dishes with local flavors.
Easily grown in a hot climate, this “Zelig” of the food world takes on the flavor of the spices in which it is cooked, a quality that has made it the most versatile vegetable in the Mediterranean region. Because Jews used it in so many dishes, it became known in Europe as the “Jewish fruit” or “apple.” The Inquisitors in Spain, according to David Gitlitz’s and Linda Davidson’s A Drizzle of Honey, asked maids if their employers frequently requested eggplant. If they did, they were judged to be Jewish.
When I was growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, eggplant meant only one thing: my mom’s eggplant parmigiana—fried patties topped with mozzarella and cooked in tomato sauce. However, this changed in my twenties when I moved to Jerusalem and was introduced to a whole new world of eggplants—stuffed, boiled, stewed and pickled—all with exotic spices from Morocco, Turkey, India and, of course, Israel. Melech Hahatzilim (King of Eggplant), a now defunct Bulgarian restaurant in Ramat Aviv, boasted an entire eggplant menu from soups to cake. Since then, I have seen eggplant dips that include pickles, soy sauce, black olives, roasted peppers, mayonnaise—anything goes. “A washerwoman had told us that no Arab maid was worth her bride price until she was able to cook eggplants in seven different ways,” Ruth Jordan recollects in Daughter of the Waves: Memories of Growing Up in Pre-War Palestine. I have heard many variations of the washerwoman’s saying, one even asserting that a woman should know more than 101 ways to cook eggplant.
A good source of vitamin K, thiamin, vitamin B6, folate, potassium, manganese and dietary fiber, eggplant is very low in saturated fat and cholesterol. Thanks to its firm texture, it can easily approximate meat. Vegetarian chopped liver is made with sauteed onions, fried eggplant and hard-boiled eggs, all chopped with a knife or in a food processor. Breaded and fried eggplant can replace veal schnitzel. When charred over a grill, it can be “caviar.”