The purple egg-shaped tropical fruit aubergine, eggplant, or brinjal, has long been common in Asia and Europe. It belongs to the family of nightshade species and is believed to have originated in South Asia, the Indian subcontinent.
Where does the word aubergine come from?
The etymology of the word aubergine is quite complex and interesting. The original word vatingan (or vatingama) is traced back to the Sanskrit language. Vatingan became badingan in Persian, which became al badingan in Arabic. Then the migration of the word into the Mediterranean world happened in two ways.
The western Mediterranean regions like Spain adopted al badingan to auberginia which then became aubergine in French. Since the French influenced the English heavily in things related to food and cooking, the English literally borrowed the word.
Meanwhile, the eastern Mediterranean route of the word vatingan has another complex theory. Since the Greek lack the b-sound and due to some shifts in consonants and vowels, al badingan became melintzana around the 14th century. The word melintzana was transformed to melanzana, which then went to Latin as melongena forming the basis for the scientific botanical name Solanum Melongena.
Even though aubergine travelled extensively, it was not considered edible for a long time. Since it was domesticated from the wild nightshades, it was highly poisonous. It took years to tame this vegetable, or rather fruit, for consumption.
Ancient Greeks were ignorant of aubergine until the Muslim expansion in the 7th and 8th centuries. It has become a popular garden vegetable and as they thrive in hot and tropical climate, they have well assimilated into the Mediterranean region and cooking. It holds an important place in Greek cuisine and it is a highlight in many Greek dishes.
Eggplant dishes around the world
One such popular dish in the Middle East and Balkan region is moussaka. Each region has its own variation and it can be vegetarian or meat based. The Greek version and probably the most famous of Greek eggplant recipes has layers of eggplants and meat topped with bechamel sauce. Another dish, melitzanes papoutsakia is very similar to moussaka and the main difference is that the eggplants are deseeded, the flesh scooped and stuffed with an onion and tomato mixture. Another very popular appetizer is melitzanes tiganites, a crispy batter coated fried eggplant.
Eggplant salads and dips/spreads are also quite common in the Mediterranean cuisine. From the levantine region, we have the most popular eggplant spread baba ghanoush and its spicier version mutabbal. Similar eggplant dips are known as kashke bademjan from Iran, patlican salatasi in Turkey, zaalouk in Morocco, caponata in Sicily and kyopolou in Bulgaria.
Georgians call it badrijnis khizilala, which means aubergine caviar. The traditional dish of Israelis is called salat ḥatzilim, which also uses mayonnaise to enhance the flavor.
In African countries like Ethiopia, it is known as blagadoush and in South Sudan a similar eggplant dip is known as salata aswad be zabadi.
Other European countries also relish eggplant dips equally. While the French call it aubergine caviar, Hungarians and Romanians enjoy salata de vinete and Russians enjoy baklazhannaya ikra, which is also known as poor man’s caviar.
Similarly in the Indian subcontinent we have baingan bharta, a roasted and mashed eggplant side dish for roti and naan.
The recipes of the above mentioned food items vary only by a slight margin. The main ingredient is eggplant and it varies in its form and texture. It is grilled and mashed, puréed or chopped in fine pieces.
The Greek version of the roasted eggplant dip is called melitzanosalata. Even though salata means salad, when the word is attached to another word, it is known as a spread or dip. Like taramosalata (taramas – fish roe), tyrosalata (tyri – cheese, usually feta), maidanosalata (maidon – parsley) and melitzanosalata (melitzano – eggplants).
This classical dip is very popular throughout Greece with so many regional variations. Some are in puréed form while, some are mashed and more rustic with the texture of eggplants intact. You also have the creamier version of melitzanosalata with walnuts and yoghurt.
It is quite simple to prepare and is made only with few ingredients. The highlight of the spread is the smokiness from charcoal roasted eggplants. They are then mashed with skins removed and enhanced with garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, browned onions and tomatoes.
Melitzanosalata is a classical summer dip enjoyed with ouzo kai and warm bread. It is often served as a part of the mezze spread or as an appetizer with bread on the side.
- 2 lb eggplants
- 2 tomatoes , peeled, seeded and diced
- 1 large onion , chopped
- 2 cloves garlic chopped
- 1 lemon
- Olive oil
- 1 teaspoon vinegar
- Juice of a lemon
- Kalamata olives (or garnishing)
- 2 tablespoons chopped flat parsley (for garnishing)
Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise.
Season with salt and let them get rid of some of their water on a cloth or paper towel for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat and brown the onion.
Preheat the oven to 390 F.
Place the eggplants in a baking dish lightly greased with olive oil and bake until tender and lightly browned (about 40 to 50 minutes). Turn them over occasionally.
Remove the eggplants from the oven and allow them to cool, then with a tablespoon, remove the flesh and mash with a fork to make a purée.
In a large, deep dish, mix with eggplant puree, tomatoes, garlic, onion, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, vinegar and lemon juice.
Season with salt, pepper and mix well.
Place the melitzanosalata in the refrigerator for one hour before serving.
To serve, drizzle a little bit of olive oil, garnish with Kalamata olives and fresh parsley.