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By Armando Guzman Ramirez

Aug 3 2023

The eggplant, also known as aubergine (Solanum melongena), has no official date or record for its domestication but its origin has been traced to both China and India, with it being recorded from India as far back as the 15th century. This is evident due to studies made by agronomists like Nikolai Vavilov who analyzed the variability of different forms and determined that some varieties originated in India, while other varieties with spikier stems and bitter fruits originated from China. Through these discoveries, they have also found that it belongs in the nightshade family, Solanaceae, the same family as tomatoes and potatoes. The wild ancestor of the eggplant is believed to have grown in Southeast Asian countries such as India, Myanmar, and Thailand. Through trade and exploration made by Arab and Persian travelers, it gradually spread to other parts of the world as suggested by Edward Lewis Sturtevant’s documentations as early as 1919. However, its renowned reputation only began to bloom during the seventeenth century (London p. 36).

Negative Allegations
Although the scientific name of the eggplant, Solanum melongena, originates from the Arab name for the plant (albadhinjan), it's also thought to gain inspiration from the Italian term melazana or “mad apple”. At the time of this depiction the term would be somewhat accurate to the general public's view of its effects, as they believed consumption of the fruit would cause insanity. Before having the scientific name Solanum melongena applied by Linnaeus, eggplant was also known by its former name Mala Insana and distinct findings of the names “raging apple” and “love apple” in separate sources, imply something similar. This myth was likely made due to the plant belonging in the nightshade family, which Europeans had given a poor reputation, as John Gerard warned people in Spain and Africa that it had “mischievous quality” (Heiser p. 48). Many of the European native Solanaceae plants were known to be poisonous. Of course, there were some Europeans who disputed this theory about eggplant personally. John Parkinson says, in his Theatrum Botanicum, “these plants, called madde apples in English, but many doe much marveile why they should be so called, seeing none have been known, to receive any harm by eating of them" (Heiser p. 47-51). However he would later share his own qualms as he calls its bitterness a cause for diseases like Cancer, Melancholy, Leprosy and other minor side effects. As such, there were unnecessary methods created to ensure the safety of its consumption, like boiling it in vinegar, or soaking it in salt water.

Eggplant fruits often have a deep purple skin, while other colors, such as white and green are also available. Eggplants can also vary in shape, ranging from long cylindrical to spherical. The fruits have a fleshy texture and slightly bitter flavor.

A Closer Look

Armando Guzman is a summer intern in the Urban Foodways Internship program. Generous support for the program is provided by the Mellon Foundation

Heiser, Charles Bixler. The Fascinating World of the Nightshades. 1987.
London, Sheryl. Eggplant and Squash. Atheneum; First Edition, 1976.
Root, Waverley. Food. William S. Konecky Associates, 1 July 1996.