Eggplants Eggplants

[eggplant (U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand), brinjal (Indian and South African English), aubergine (British, French)]

These plants are members of the prolific Nightshade (Solanaceae) family. All are species Solanum melongena except as noted below. They got called "Eggplants" from white and yellow varieties about the size of hen, duck or goose eggs. These were common in times past and white ones are still seen in Southern California produce markets when they are in season.

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General & History

Eggplants are thought native to Southern India and Sri Lanka and have been cultivated since prehistoric times. They were probably brought to Europe by Arabs around 1500 CE. Europeans at first thought them poisonous since all their native nightshades were, but they were soon adopted into the cuisines of the Mediterranean region.

Eggplants are now grown worldwide and are available in many varieties and sizes (as all nightshades are). More varieties are grown in India than anywhere else, and while the common "Indian eggplant" well known in the U.S. weighs just a couple ounces, varieties as large as our globe eggplant are grown there.

Varieties   -   Relatives Called "Eggplant"

African Eggplants   -   [Gboma; Solanum macrocarpon (cultivated), Solanum dasyphyllum (wild)]
African Eggplant Fruit on Plant

Technically not an eggplant, but very closely related, this nightshade originated in West Africa. It has been introduced into Central and East Africa, the Caribbean, South America and parts of Southeast Asia. There are many cultivars and land races of this species which vary considerably in fruit size. The photo specimen has very long calyx lobes but some have medium or short lobes. Unripe they may be green, white or purple but generally ripen to yellow or yellow-brown.

Both fruit and young leaves are eaten. While both are quite bitter, they are much liked in Africa, and are quite nutritious. Fruit is most commonly harvested unripe and eaten raw or cooked. Leaves are alaways cooked, either as a side dish or included in soups and stews. The bitter flavor comes from toxic alkaloids, so it is recommended to not over-indulge in this plant. Best substitute would be Thai eggplants, but they are much less bitter. All parts of these plants are also used medicinally.   Photo by Vinayaraj distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Unported.

Ethiopian Eggplant   -   [Bitter Tomato, Mock Tomato; Garden Eggs (Nigeria); Khamen Akhaba (Manipuri, India); Samtawk (Mizoram, India); Solanum aethiopicum]
Ethiopian Eggplants, northen India

Various cultivars of these plants are grown in Asia and tropical Africa. As with other nightshades, there are many varieties. The photo specimens are from northeastern India, but some varieties, particularly in Africa, look like tiny pumpkins with very deep sutures, and ripen to orange. The fruit is usually picked unripe before the skin thickens, and is eaten both raw and cooked. It can be sweet or bitter depending on cultivar. Young leaves are cooked as nutritous greens.

Fruit of this plant is particularly popular in Manipur and Mizoram in the extreme northeast of India. In Nigeria the fruits are used similarly to tomatoes to make a sauce. They are also used in curries in Thailand and Vietnam. A fair number are grown in Brazil for the African communities there, and a few are grown in Italy, probably brought back from Ethiopia by Italian soldiers.   Photo by Tabish q at English Wikipedia distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Unported, attribution required.

Pea Eggplant   -   [Thai Pea Eggplant; Turkey Berry, Susumber (Jamaica); Sundaikkai (Tamil); Makhua phuang (Thai); Thibbatu (Sinhala); Solanum torvum]
Pea Eggplant Fruits on Plant

This eggplant, producing fruit about 0.4 inch diameter, is native to the Americas, from Florida through the Caribbean and from Mexico south into Brazil. It has been naturalized throughout the tropics and can be a serious pest in some environments. The berries grow in clusters, and are usually picked green, but can ripen to yellow and bright red.

While somewhat more bitter than the green Thai eggplant, it is used in many cuisines, particularly in Southeast Asia and southern India. It has a significant place in the cuisines of Tamil Nadu. The fruits are used both fresh, and slit and dried. I have not seen these for sale here in Los Angeles, but seeds are easily available on-line.   Photo by Parvathisri distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Unported.

Thorn Apple   -   [Bitter Apple; Solanum incanum]
Ripe Thorn Apple on Plant

This shrub is the plant from which the domesticated Eggplant was developed. It is native to Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia from Arabia east to India. The fruit is 1 to 1.4 inches diameter and ripens to yellow or brown. All parts of the plant are toxic, but in West Africa cultivars have been developed that provide larger, edible fruit and edible leaves. Within its range this plant has a large number of medicinal uses, but it is also used as a vegetable rennet in making cheese. The photo specimen was photographed in the mountans of Oman, in the far southeast of the Arabian Peninsula.   Photo by Nepenthes distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Unported.

Varieties   -   Eggplants

Chinese Eggplant
Chinese Eggplants These elongated eggplants are easily recognizable by their light purple color. In Southern California they are available second only to the globe eggplant. They can be used interchangeably with Italian, Japanese and Philippine eggplants and are an imperfect but generally satisfactory substitute for Indian eggplants. The longest photo specimen was 15-1/2 inches long, 2 inches diameter and weighed about 11 ounces. Most are less elongated, the front one being a more typical shape.

Eggplant Skins
Eggplant Skins These conical skins are used for stuffing in Turkey and Lebanon and are generally served as appetizers. Skins are usually sold strung on a piece of string in markets serving a Near Eastern community. Hard as old leather, they need to be soaked at least overnight before you can use them for anything.

Globe Eggplant
Globe Eggplants The standard supermarket eggplant, globes vary greatly in size and regularity of shape. They may be perfectly pear shaped or quite lopsided but are always a deep purple color. The photo specimen was 8 inches long, 5-1/2 inches diameter and weighed 2-1/4 pounds, about an average size.

Some writers say these come in Male and Female versions, a biological absurdity. For details see "Male" & "Female" Eggplants.

Indian Eggplant
Indian Eggplants These small egg shaped eggplants are now very common in California produce markets because of the significant Indian population here (and probably in other centers of technology). They come in two varieties, purple and variegated with the purple most common. They are almost never peeled.

This is the eggplant to presume in Indian and Burmese recipes unless the instructions make it clear elongated or globe eggplants are intended. Indian eggplants vary somewhat in size. The largest photo specimen was 3-3/4 inches long, 2-3/8 inches diameter and weighing 4-1/8 ounces, a bit above average. The smallest in the batch (not shown) was 1-7/8 inches diameter and weighed just 1-1/8 ounces.

Italian Eggplant
Italian Eggplants These dark purple eggplants appear very similar to Japanese eggplant but are invariably a lot shorter. They are the second most available eggplant nation-wide after the globe. The center photo specimen was 7-1/2 inches long, 1-3/4 inches diameter and weighed just under 5 ounces.

Japanese Eggplant
Japanese Eggplants These very elongated eggplants are smaller than the Chinese and are a very dark purple, sometimes almost black. You can tell them from the similar Italian eggplants because the stem end is purple, while on Italians it is green. These eggplants have a very thin skin which makes them desirable for stews, curries and the like.They vary greatly in size but are typically about 8 inches long, 1-1/2 inches diameter and weigh 5 ounces. These are widely available in Southern California produce markets but are somewhat seasonal.

Mediterranean Sweet Eggplant
Med. Eggplants I have no idea if they actually grow these in the Mediterranean region, but Med. Sweet is how they're marketed in California. They may actually be related to a sweet Italian eggplant which is of a variegated white and purple color and more blocky in shape. The degree of sweetness over regular eggplants is noticeable but not great. These were 4-1/4 inch diameter spheres weighing just about 1 pound each. They are not common and are available only seasonally.

Philippine Eggplant
Eggplants These elongated eggplants are similar in shape to the Japanese and Chinese eggplants but distinguished from them by the mix of purple and green color. They vary quite a bit in size with the largest in the photo 9-1/2 inches long, 2-7/8 inches diameter and weighing 14 ounces. They are available in most markets that serve a Philippine community (generally near major hospital and health care centers).

Thai Eggplant   -   [Kermit Eggplant, Green Eggplant; Makua, Makhuea pro (Thai); Poluru Vankayalu (India - Telugu); Solanum melongena]
Thai Eggplants

These unique, easy to identify eggplants are growing in popularity and now widely available in California and the Southwest. They stay noticeably firmer than other eggplants when cooked so can take longer cooking and more abuse. These eggplants are never peeled. They are usually between 1-1/2 and 2-1/4 inches diameter and weigh up to 2-3/4 ounces. When cut, the seeds should be very light beige (the photo shows the darkest acceptable). If they are dark the eggplant is old and will be bitter.

Those grown in California are mainly green stripes over white or light green background, but some white are grown here. In Thailand yellow and light purple versions are also sold. An elongated light green Thai eggplant similar in appearance to the Japanese eggplant, except for color, is not yet available here.

These eggplants are also the predominant variety grown in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu in southeastern India, particularly around Nandyala. The Indian version tends to be a bit more elongated than the Thai, but the coloration and cooking properties are the same. Natives of the region living in California find the Thai variety quite acceptable.

Vietnamese Pickled Eggplant   -   [Ca Phao, Ca muoi (Viet)]
Thai Eggplants

These are apparently ca trang (white eggplant) judging from the amount of seeds. Another, ca nghe (yellow eggplant is also used for pickles but has relatively fewer seeds. Very crunchy with a light eggplant flavor, they are about 1 inch in diameter. In Vietnam, pickled eggplants of this sort are considered an indispensable accompaniment for soups.

White Eggplant
White Eggplants These are likely where the name "eggplant" came from, as they are often egg shaped, varying from chicken egg size to duck egg size and on to goose egg size - but they also come in elongated shapes, like the photo specimens.

White eggplants have tough skins which need to be peeled (unless you're stuffing them) but the flesh is a little more mild than purple eggplants. The photo specimen in the center was 7-1/4 inches long, 1-7/8 inches diameter and weighed 5-3/4 ounces. Availability is erratic, both for white eggplants at all and for particular shapes - you just have to buy them when you can get them. Here in Los Angeles I saw these occasionally a few years ago, but not at all for a couple of years now (2013).

Health Considerations

Eggplants are a good source of dietary fiber and contain appreciable amounts of potassium, manganese, copper, Vitamin B1, B6 and foliate.

Scientific studies have concentrated on the high content of important antioxidants and free radical scavengers. Eggplants are considered very good for both anti-cancer and anti-cholesterol considerations.

Eggplants contain more oxalate than other nightshades and most other vegetables. Oxalates can affect persons with pre-existing kidney and gall bladder problems. While oxalates are known to inhibit calcium absorption this effect is very small and foods containing oxalates generally provide more calcium to the diet than they inhibit.

Eggplants contain an unusually high amount of nicotine alkaloids, but you would have to eat at least 20 pounds of eggplant to achieve the amount from smoking one cigarette.

Eggplants prepared certain ways can cause a very light but noticeable stinging sensation in the mouth. This is normal and harmless.

Claims have been made that arthritis symptoms were relieved by removal of all nightshades (eggplant, tomatoes, potatoes, etc.) from the diet, but these claims have not been confirmed by any controlled study.

Much anti-nightshade propaganda originates from the Michio Kushi Macrobiotics movement - much more religion than science. They claim all nightshades (eggplants, tomatoes, potatoes, chilis, etc.) are highly toxic and will ruin your health in short order. If there was any truth to that I'd have died decades ago.

Populations with heavy eggplant consumption, particularly India, do not appear to be suffering population decline nor any other ailment that can be attributed to eggplants.

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