It’s a little ironic for me to be writing about aubergines considering I probably haven’t ever eaten one myself. I’m an incredibly fussy eater and I’m sure I would’ve dismissed the idea of eating a purple vegetable off-hand. But nevertheless, the aubergine is a fascinating thing for many different reasons. Let me tell you why.
First, what actually is it?
The aubergine is both a plant and the fruit that grows from it. It’s also an emoji, but we’ll come to that later on. Aubergine is known to scientific sorts as Solanum melongena, and it’s in the nightshade (Solanum) family. That means it’s related to the tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) and the potato (Solanum tuberosum).
The plant itself has spiny stems, with a flower that ranges from white to purple. The fruit is shiny and purple with a white, meaty flesh inside.
Because I haven’t tried aubergine before, I asked a work colleague what she thought it tasted like. She said: “I love aubergine! I’ve got no idea what it tastes like.”
What about the name?
I like “aubergine”. It sounds exotic. If I had a baby girl, I’d definitely name her Aubergine (I wouldn’t, let’s be honest – it’d be cruel). There are many names for the plant and fruit we call aubergine, and they almost all derive from the Arabic name for it, which is (al)-bāḏinjān.
In the eastern Mediterranean, however, they did things a little differently – their words for the plant came via Byzantine Greek as melanzana, which was influence by the Greek for “black”. So in Italy, they know it as melongiana and melanzana; and in Medieval Latin, they called it a melongena.
The Italian name was eventually interpreted as mela insana (cos it sounds similar to melanzana), which means crazy apple. Mela insana was then translated into English as mad apple (so if someone offers you a mad apple, expect aubergine).
The Americans, Australians and Kiwis (New Zealanders; not birds), however, chose a slightly more logical name – they call it an eggplant. Why? Well, because the white varieties of the fruit look just like hen’s eggs. Nevermind that most of the aubergines you see today are actually purple (if you ever come across a purple hen’s egg, dispose of it).
Where does it come from?
No, not Tesco/Sainsbury’s/Asda/LIDL etc. The aubergine was cultivated many, many centuries ago in southern and eastern Asia. In fact, the first known written reference to aubergine was in an ancient Chinese text called Qimin Yaoshu, which was written in 544. Aubergine is believed to have been spread to Europe by the Arabs in the early Middle Ages.
What do people do with aubergines?
Well, they eat them – but probably not raw as they taste quite bitter, apparently. When they’re cooked, however, they develop a rich and complex taste. Aubergines are quite often used in dishes as a meat substitute, due to their texture and bulkiness.
Aubergines are pretty flexible – you can roast them, deep fry them, mash them, and cook them until the skin’s charred. They can even be hollowed out and stuffed with meat and other vegetables.
What do people believe about the aubergine?
Perhaps because of the translation of melanzana into mela insana (crazy apple), the aubergine was thought to cause insanity in 13th century Italy. People believed the same thing about aubergines in 19th century Egypt too, where insanity was said to be “more common and more violent” when aubergines were in season.
But the strangest belief about aubergines probably comes from Japan. There, hatsuyume is the first dream you have in the new year which is supposed to foretell how your luck’s going to go for the rest of the year. Apparently, it’s considered extremely lucky to dream about either Mount Fuji, a hawk, or… you guessed it, an aubergine! The theory for this is that Mount Fuji is Japan’s highest mountain, hawks are clever and strong birds, and the Japanese for aubergine (nasu or nasubi) means achieving something great (nasu).
Finally, what about the emoji?
It wouldn’t be right to talk about the aubergine without referring to its notoriety as an emoji. Emojis are basically mini cartoon pictures that people use in messages and posts to express meaning – and the aubergine emoji has a particular meaning all of its own. Put it this way, if someone sends you an aubergine emoji, they’re probably not talking about a long, purple vegetable…