Eggplant, Mad Apple, Brown Jolly: Its names are odd, but its appeal is global

  • Spanish eggplant fritters

  • Spanish eggplant fritters ROBERT HOPLEY

  • Spanish eggplant fritters ROBERT HOPLEY

  • Papoutsakia ROBERT HOPLEY

  • Papoutsakia ROBERT HOPLEY

  • Eggplants come in many shapes and sizes. ROBERT HOPLEY

  • Fresh Eggplant can be eaten as a fruit. The egg plant has a dark purple like skin. The image is shown at an angle and is in full focus from the front to the back. The plant is isolated on a white background, and includes a clipping path. Danny Smythe—Getty Images/iStockphoto

For the Gazette
Published: 8/14/2017 2:49:48 PM

Eggplants belong to the Asian branch of the nightshade family, so when they arrived in Europe and North America about 500 years ago they were thought to be poisonous like the common deadly nightshade.

 The Italians and Greeks called them melanzana and melitzana respectively — words meaning ‘mad apple” and describing their supposed crazy-making effects.

 In British-English and French they are aubergines, in Spanish berenjena, and in Hindi brinjal, which became “brown jolly” in some Caribbean islands — all names rooted in the ancient language Sanskrit.

Since eggplants have been cultivated since prehistory, so we have inherited a multitude of recipes.

We have spicy Chinese stir fries and Indian curries, numerous savory stews from the Middle East and North Africa and myriad versions of stuffed eggplant from the eastern Mediterranean. Among the classics are imam bayildi, whose Turkish name means “the imam fainted” — perhaps because the flavors took his breath away, or maybe he was in frugal shock at the quantity of expensive olive oil the dish requires.

 Greek classics include papoutsakia — eggplants filled with ground meat and topped with cheese sauce — and moussakas, a layered dish of eggplants with a tomato-meat sauce and a similar cheese topping.

 From France comes ratatouille, a mixture of eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, and peppers.

 Spain has a mixture called pisto and also escalavida, a dish of roasted vegetables in which eggplant is a star player.

 Italy has pasta norma with an eggplant-tomato sauce, and its famous Parmigiana: eggplant slices with tomato sauce and mozzarella.  

Most of these eggplant classics are pièce de resistance main dishes rather than side dishes. This may be because unpeeled eggplant slices hold firm when cooked so they can replace all or some of the meat. Conversely, peeled eggplant or eggplant chopped small works well in cold appetizers such as baba ghanoush — an Eastern Mediterranean smoked eggplant dip — and salad such as the Sicilian caponata, a sweet-sour blend of eggplant, celery, and capers. 

Celery is an unusual and therefore interesting ingredient with eggplant. More typically tomatoes partner with eggplant in recipe after recipe. They are a natural because they ripen at the same time, plus they add an attractive acidity that eggplant lacks. They, too, belong to the nightshade family.

 Potatoes, another American nightshade cousin, are also a good, though less common, eggplant companion, especially in Indian recipes. Lamb, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and oregano all work well with eggplant, as do cheese toppings. 

Eggs play no big part in most eggplant dishes, so how did eggplants get their American name? 

It’s an 18th-century term coined when a white egg-sized variety was popular. You might spot pearly-white eggplants in farmers markets. You will see long oval eggplants, perhaps white, often purple or elegantly streaked white and mauve. You’ll also spot big burly purple eggplant — sometimes almost globular — and small Asian eggplants, some egg-shaped; others like purply sausages. 

In all cases you can cook eggplant with or without the peel. For dips you get a better appearance and texture if they are unpeeled; in layered dishes such as Parmigiana or moussakas the peel helps keep slices intact. Often recipes advise salting eggplant before cooking it. Historically this was to remove the bitter juice of some varieties.  This is not a problem in modern varieties, but salting is still a good idea because it breaks down the cell walls so they absorb less oil. 

Here are some classic recipes from different countries to help you enjoy the harvest. 


These fritters, which are common in southern Spain and Greece, are highlighted by a drizzle of molasses. Sounds weird until you remember that in earlier centuries New Englanders poured molasses on everything. Cordoba in Andalusia is credited as the birthplace of this dish, and of eggplants with honey.

3 ounces flour

1 tablespoon salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium oval eggplant, weighing about 10-12 ounces

1 egg white, stiffly beaten

About 1 cup canola or peanut oil

2-3 tablespoons molasses


Make a batter by mixing the flour and oil together, add about ¾ cup of water a little at a time until you have a smooth batter about as thin as light cream. Stir in a pinch of the salt and set aside for at least an hour. 

Cut the eggplant into circular slices, at most no thicker than a quarter. Put them in a colander, sprinkling with the remaining salt as you go. Set in a sink to drain and leave for about an hour. Rinse off the salt and thoroughly dry the slices on a cloth kitchen towel.

For frying, stir the egg white into the batter, and drop in a few slices of eggplant. Heat about an inch of oil into a heavy pan or frying pan and set over high heat. When a drop of batter rises immediately to the top of the oil, it is ready.

 Now, letting excess batter drip from the eggplant slices as you lift them, put them in the hot oil, a few at a time so you don’t overcrowd the pan. Let them sizzle for a minute then turn them over and cook until both sides are golden brown.

 Drain on kitchen paper and keep warm while you make further batches. Serve while still very hot with the molasses trickled over the top.


In Greek “papoutsakia” means little shoes, and it’s easy to see why these slipper-shaped stuffed eggplants attracted this name. The stuffing is a flavorful mix of lamb, tomatoes, and herbs. The topping, which is much thicker than most cheese sauces, is flavored with feta and Parmesan.

3-4 eggplant, each about 8-10 ounces

1-2 tablespoons salt

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

12 ounces ground lamb 

1 large onion, peeled and chopped

2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

3 cups peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes

1 cup grated carrot (optional)

2 teaspoons dried oregano or more to taste

1 teaspoon dried mint

1 bay leaf

About 1 teaspoon cinnamon

White pepper to taste

For the topping

3 tablespoons butter

¼ cup flour

2-3 cups milk

3 egg yolks, lightly beaten

4 ounces crumbled feta

1 cup grated Parmesan

Salt if needed

Freshly grated nutmeg

Cut the eggplants in half longways, leaving the stalk on if possible. Cut a deep hollow in each half, by removing the flesh so you have a shell with quarter-inch thick walls.

 Sprinkle the inside with salt and sit skin side up on a rack so they drain. Cut the removed flesh into inch pieces, put them in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Leave the eggplant for an hour.

To make the meat filling, heat a tablespoon of the olive oil in a large pan. Crumble in the ground meat and cook until it has browned. Push it to one side of the pan, and add the onions and garlic to the other side.

 Cook for 4-5 minutes, or until the onions have softened a little, then combine with the meat and stir in the tomatoes, carrot (if using), oregano, mint, bay leaf, and half a teaspoon cinnamon. Season with salt.

 Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes until you have a thick sauce. If there is a lot of excess liquid, take off the lid and boil more rapidly to evaporate it. Taste and add more oregano or cinnamon or salt if you think them necessary.  

To make the sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan and off the heat stir the flour into it to make a thick paste. Over moderate heat, stir in the milk a quarter cup at a time, until you have a thick pudding-like sauce. Stir in the egg yolks, then the feta and about ¾ of the Parmesan. Cook gently, stirring all the time, until the cheeses are mixed in. Taste to see if they have provided enough salt. If not add a little. Also grate in a little nutmeg.  Keep warm.

To finish the dish, heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a pan that will hold the eggplant shells in a single layer and place them in it. Cover with foil and bake for 10 minutes to tenderize them a little.

 Remove from the oven. Fill each shell with the meat mixture, pressing it down slightly. Spread the cheese sauce on top to cover the meat. Return the pan to the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the cheese topping is golden and the eggplant shells are tender. For serving sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan.



You can get a head start on this recipe by preparing the mushrooms and eggplant several hours before the meal. After this the final stir-frying of this tasty dish goes super-fast.

 ½ ounce dried cloud ear mushrooms (also called Chinese black fungus)

1 pound Japanese or other small eggplants, washed

½ cup peanut or canola oil

4 scallions, trimmed of coarse outer leaves

3-4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1 tablespoon grated or finely chopped fresh ginger

1-2 tablespoons of Szechuan chili-bean paste or Ma-Po paste

2 tablespoons Chinese rice cooking wine or white wine

1 tablespoon soy sauce, or more to taste

½ teaspoon salt or to taste

1 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons coarsely torn cilantro

1 tablespoon cornstarch stirred into ¼ cup water

Put the mushrooms in a bowl and cover with water. Let soak for half an hour (or longer if more convenient).

 When tender cut into quarter-inch strips. Set aside

Discard the stalk of the eggplants, then halve them lengthways, and cut each half into three-quarter inch chunks. Pour about half the oil into a frying pan over high heat. Fry the chunks (in batches) for about 4 minutes or until browned and softened. If necessary lower the heat to stop burning, and add a little more oil if needed to fry all the pieces.

 Remove the cooked chunks onto paper towels to absorb excess oil. You can complete work to this stage 3-4 hours before moving on to making the dish if you like. Or proceed immediately.

Divide the white and green parts of the scallions. Cut each part into half-inch lengths keeping the two colors separate. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a wok or sauté pan over high heat; add the garlic and ginger, and cook for about 30 seconds, then mix in the white scallion bits. Cook for another few seconds and then stir in a tablespoon of the chili-bean paste and a tablespoon of soy sauce.

 Tip in the eggplant chunks and mushroom strips, the wine and half a cup of water.  Stir over moderately high heat for 2 minutes, adding a little extra water if necessary to cook everything. Mix in the salt and sugar plus half the cilantro. Stir for half a minute, then stir in the cornstarch mixture and green scallion pieces. Cook for another minute until thickened. Taste for seasoning and add more salt, soy sauce or chili paste if you would like it.

 Serve on a warmed platter with the rest of the cilantro on top.


Indians make many hearty dishes that team potatoes with eggplant. Served with rice and a bean dish such as an Indian dhal, this recipe is a satisfying vegetarian main-dish option. Other veggie treats include the Chinese-style Spicy eggplant above and the Sicilian Pasta Norma below

1-2 eggplants weighing a total of 1¼ to 1½ pounds

1 tablespoons salt, plus more for seasoning

2-3 medium potatoes, total weight about ½ pound

4-6 tomatoes, total weight about 1 pound

2-3 tablespoons peanut or sunflower oil

1 large onion, peeled and chopped

2-4 cloves garlic (according to taste), finely chopped

2 tablespoons finely chopped or grated fresh ginger

1 small green chili, finely chopped, or more to taste, or pinch red pepper flakes

2 teaspoons garam masala

1 teaspoon powdered cumin

1 teaspoon powdered turmeric

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro

  Cut the eggplant into 1-inch cubes. Put them in a colander sprinkling with the salt as you go. Set in the sink and leave for an hour. Rinse the eggplant cubes and pat them dry.

 Meanwhile, peel the potatoes and cut in thickish slices. Coarsely chop the tomatoes.

Heat the oil in a saucepan or frying pan and gently cook the onion in it for 4- minutes. Stir in the garlic and ginger and cook for another minute or two. Now stir in the chili, 1 teaspoon of the garam masala, the cumin, and turmeric. Stir in the eggplant cubes for a minute then add the tomatoes. Stir for a minute or two and if the mixture seems dry add 1 quarter cup of water.

 Finally, stir in the potatoes, cover the pan and simmer for about 25 minutes, stirring from time to time. You can add more water if necessary. 

When the potatoes are tender, taste and add salt if needed, and more chili if you like it. Stir in half the cilantro and the remaining garam masala and cook for another couple of minutes. Use the remaining cilantro as garnish. 


This classic dish is not actually named after a woman. Writing in the authoritative Bugialli on Pasta (1988), Giuliano Bugialli says “The word “norma is taken from the Sicilian language, not Italian. It actually means “pasta in the normal way.” And so we can see from this how important the combination is to the Sicilians.”

 It’s a quick, easy, inexpensive, and delicious way to enjoy the late-summer harvest of both eggplant and tomatoes.

 1 large or 2 smaller eggplant weighing about 1¼ -1½ pounds

About 2 tablespoons salt

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

3-4 cups chopped tomatoes

3 basil leaves, torn, plus sprigs for garnish

2 teaspoons dried oregano

1 teaspoon sugar (optional)

12 ounces spaghetti, linguine or a smaller pasta shape such as penne

Grated Parmesan for serving

Wash the eggplant, slice crossways then cut the circles into 1-inch cubes. Put them in a colander and sprinkle well with salt. Let it stand in the sink for 30-45 minutes, then rinse the eggplant cubes and dry them.

 While the eggplant is salting, turn the oven to 425 degrees. Toss the dried eggplant cubes with 2 tablespoons of the oil and arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet or in a shallow pan, and bake them for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown,

While the eggplant is baking, put a pasta pan with 3 quarts of salted water on to boil. Also heat the remaining oil and soften the onion in it for 4-5 minutes. Stir in the garlic, then add the tomatoes, the torn basil leaves, the oregano, and about ¼ teaspoon of salt. Bring to simmering point and cook gently, stirring from time to time, until the mixture has thickened: about 12-15 minutes. Taste and add more salt if necessary. Also add the sugar if needed to pull the flavors together. 

When the eggplant cubes are ready stir them into the tomato sauce, and simmer for 5 minutes. 

About 12 minutes before you estimate that the sauce and eggplant will be ready, put the pasta in the boiling water. Stir, let come back to a boil, and cook for the time specified by the manufacturer — usually 10-12 minutes.

 Drain and return to the pan. Toss about a third of the sauce with the pasta, then tip it into a serving dish. Top with the rest of the sauce, the Parmesan, and garnish with basil sprigs.



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