Aubergine: An eggplant by any other name

Eggplant is so called because the first varieties known to English-speaking people bore colorful egg shaped fruits. The eggplant is also known in other cuisines by various names, including  aubergine, melanzana, or brinjal,  Probably form the French, then from Catalan albergínia, from Arabic al-bādhinjān,  the eggplant is a mysterious, enigmatic and delicious vegetable when prepared properly.

A staple in cuisines of the Mediterranean region, eggplant figures prominently in such classic dishes as the Greek moussaka, the Italian eggplant parmigiana, and the Middle Eastern relish baba ghanoush. It is also frequently served as a baked, grilled, fried, or boiled vegetable and is used as a garnish and in stews.

Eggplant (Solanum melongena), also called aubergine or Guinea squash, is a tender perennial plant of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), closely related to the tomato and potato. Eggplant requires a warm climate and is grown extensively in eastern and southern Asia and in the United States. It is native to southern and eastern Asia, where it has been cultivated since remote antiquity for its fleshy fruit.  The fruit is a large egg-shaped berry, varying in colour from dark purple to red, yellowish, or white (the color and shape of the white variety is the source of the common name); it is sometimes striped and has a glossy surface.

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Why it is so fascinating to me:  Several years ago, i was preparing for a trip to Spain. It was a grand tour, including Barcelona, Granada, Valencia, Cordoba and the charming town of Girona. I thought it was time to brush up on my Spanish, and learn a few more phrases and common items before my trip. Little did I know until much later that they speak Catalan, not Spanish, in Barcelona, but some extra linguistic studying wouldn’t hurt. I’ve always enjoyed the Hispanic markets, and shopped frequently at them for vegetables, staples and unusual items. The items were listed on the shelves in both Spanish and English which made learning the names of the vegetables much easier.

So, I’ve seen carrots (zanahoria), apples (manzana), strawberry ( fresca), garlic (ajo), potato (patata), lettuce (lechuga), onion  (cebolla), but I did not know the word for eggplant. I am wandering the produce bins, and see  beautiful eggplants on the shelves for 3 for $ 1.oo. I’m thinking baba ghannoush, or roasted eggplant, or caponata, or just some delicious Eggplant Parmesan, but I ned to know the name in Spanish. the produce clerk. I ask him in my broken Spanish: Lo que se llama esto? (What is this called in Spanish?) He looks confused, puzzled and looks to the heaven for an answer. Our Lady of Guadalupe knows the word for ‘eggplant’ ?  He is completely stumped. I try to visualize and play a game of charades with him, gesturing and forming an ‘air-eggplant’ with my hands. He probably thinks I’m crazy (loco), and making the image of a Conehead , or some bizarre Flamenco dancer or Quetzecotl human sacrifice altar…I don’t know what he thinks, but clearly he doesn’t have an answer for me. I hold up an eggplant and ask him again, but alI he has to say is: “Yo no lo se.” ( I don’t know). …or care…maybe…I didn’t really know.

I see a trio of Spanish women spanning three generations: a glorious grandmother, dressed completely  in black, probably mourning her late husband who fought with Pancho Villa; her daughter, a stunning Chiquita with 7″ platform red shoes, a dress so tight you could see her freckles, doing her best Shakira/Housewives of Nogales impersonation and exuding a mucho hispanic-ness that would set ICE alarms off at 50 paces; and then there was the poquita nina, a sweet doe-eyed child of 6 or 7 just tagging along for the grocery store visit with mama and nana. It was a combined vision of Goya, Valasquez and modern day  cover of People en Espagnole !  So I still don’t know what the word for eggplant in Spanish is yet, and I reach out to tres generacions for an answer.

I turn to the daughter and ask: Do you know what the Spanish word for eggplant is please?  No se, she responds. I turn to the youngest and ask again. She has no idea, though thoughtful and reflective. Stranger Danger ? Who’s the weird guy in a white coat (chef’s jacket), asking these questions? Finally, I turn to the eldest woman, the dark, mysterious and enigmatic matron of the family. Politely, I ask again:Lo que se llama esto?” She ponders. She pauses. She smiles. She (also) looks to the heavens. She looks at me, she looks at the daughter. The granddaughter. The clerk. and then, again at me. She has a revelation for me. An epiphany? Will I finally know the answer? Does she know? Yes. She pulls away her veil ( yes a black veil, in Rancho Market on a Tuesday), pauses, looks me right in the eyes and feeling my curiosity and tenacity and anticipation, and she says the word. “Eggplant” she states. I could have died laughing. But the joke was on me, afterall. My unswerving quest to master the eggplant was a transnational comedic experience.

Oh, by the way, I did later learn the Spanish word. It is berenjena. Not nearly as funny as eggplant or aubergine, but I am a better chef for knowing. Anyone for Spanish eggplant street tacos?

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