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Eggplant: Hated Is Now Loved
Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods
Winter Volume: 2019 Issue: 26(4) pages: 21 to 24
This vegetable’s nature, the Chinese say is cooling and
sweet. Many believe it came to China from Southeast
Asia, specifically where, seems people do not agree.
Overall, Chinese prefer long thin ones
and seen on page 23 they call them
‘Japanese eggplants’. They eat them
often, still ask many questions about
them, and the most frequent is: “Is it
really a fruit?” The answer is yes.
Some say it came to China during the
Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE), but Sui Tang
Yi, a prominent writer, called it kun lun
tzu kua meaning ‘Malayan purple melon.’
Did he believe it came from Malaysia?
There are those who say it came from
Cambodia, Thailand, or somewhere else
in Southeast Asia; few believe it came
from China or Japan.
In most of Asia, they call the long thin ones ‘Asian’ or
an ‘Oriental’ eggplant. Not so China, they call the one
they like best and grow most often as the ‘Japanese
eggplant.’ Neither round nor fat as the one shown on
this page is called an Itlaian eggplant. The Chinese call
them Japanese eggplants. They have the same purple/
black exteriors, and they also grow ones with green or
white exteriors. We have never seen a fat one growing in
China in any of our seventeen trips there. That amazes
me as they grow so many other varieties from those
small as cherries to the thin ones they call ‘Japanese.’
The Italian type can weigh about up to three-pounds
each. In China and most of Asia, eggplants are cooked
as vegetables, never eaten raw as most fruits are.
Some believe the Chinese spread this variety to many
Asian countries including Japan and Korea. They call
it ‘chia’ which is close to the Cantonese pronunciation
of ch’ieh, and close to the Thai name of khia. In one
source, we read it came to China by way of India, then
went on to North and South America, but we do and
did not believe that. We also read that in Sanskrit
and modern Indian languages, it is better known as
vatingana meaning ‘belonging to the windy class.’ That
idea is associated with madness, and may be why some
say eating one can make you mad.
We also read that in the seventh century when it
reached Iran, they called it badinjan and did not always
love it. Was it because it was black and bitter, the color
like a scorpion’s belly, the taste like its sting? However,
in Southeast Asia, many like bitter flavors so why did
that bother them?
When the eggplant got to Balkan countries, it
was called the ‘lord of vegetables’ and was better
appreciated there. Maybe they shared their eggplant
thoughts with Russians who called it
baklazhan? Did they wonder if there
was a connection with the Italians
whose name was closer to theirs and is
melanzana? Did they think it sounded
like ‘crazy’ or mela insana meaning
In its many travels, many people
thought this fruit not healthy because
one Pope’s doctor wrote “they are
hard to digest, generate headaches and
melancholy, even cancer or leprosy.
These notions did not help their image
nor their acceptance. Maybe this is
why they were never sold well in Paris
after a French doctor to the Pope said
what he said. However, that fear did
not last long nor was it accurate. When the Spanish
and Portuguese brought its seeds to the Americas,
they quickly became popular there. Was this because
there were many Italians already living there?
In the US, few knew that Thomas Jefferson had them
growing in Monticello. His African slaves gave him
their seeds and planted them for him as they did okra,
watermelon, black-eyed peas, and other vegetables.
Did you know his people called them ‘guinea squash?’
That was published in The Carolina Housewife in 1847
with several recipes for them. Earlier, in 1770, they had
that name in a book written by a cousin of Harriet
Horry who liked them and as the first American to
write about them, said they were good food.
These days, many cook the thin ones as K.C. Chang
does mention them a couple of hundred years later
in his 1977 book, Food in Chinese Culture. So does
Elizabeth David, but not that way. Her article, in 1987
titled “Mad, Bad, Despised, and Dangerous” in Petits
Propos Culinaire touts them negatively and did not
help, maybe hindered their popularity. Maybe the
Italian variety already had a positive image in the US
by then. Nowadays, importers tell us the skinnier ones
are gaining in popularity, and appreciated more as
they are less bitter. Which ones do you like better?