Magazine article The Spectator

Purple and Popular

Magazine article The Spectator

Purple and Popular

Article excerpt

I can't imagine why I used to think that aubergines came from Australia: it may have had to do with some subliminal childhood association of aubergines with aborigines. They were, however, first cultivated in a faraway country - China, by some accounts, or India - and are said to have journeyed westwards in the saddlebags of Arab spice traders. A white, spherical variety of aubergine is also said to have reached the United States in the 19th century with Chinese immigrants who came to build the railways; reasonably enough, the Americans christened it egg-plant and the name spread to other parts of the Englishspeaking world. This sounded entirely plausible until I read of the Reverend Ismay commenting in 1767 on the egg-plants he had seen in a Yorkshire greenhouse.

Whatever its origins, the aubergine is established as, after the tomato, one of the most popular and widely available of the 'vegetable fruits'. It can only be grown under glass in this country, but since it is normally grown in warmer climates and can be bought here all year round, I have no objection to eating it in winter. Buying foreign asparagus before the proper English stuff is ready to harvest in May is quite a different matter.

Aubergines come in a variety of purples and violets, usually truncheon-shaped; they may be mauvish with white streaks, also oval and ivory-coloured (the ones that resemble eggs). Some cooks go on about the need to salt aubergines to rid them of bitterness, but today's varieties don't really need this treatment. I have to say that aubergines are not to be found every week in our larder, but if ever I turned vegan I might find a lot more use for them. (I have just come across a recipe, on the Internet, for 'sausages' made with aubergines, butter beans and breadcrumbs. Yum or Yuk?)

My main problem with aubergines has been ratatouille - not so much the dish, which is perfectly all right with, for instance, roast lamb, but the fact that it makes me think of Left-leaning, Volvo-- driving habitues of the Notting Hill bistros of my postgraduate youth. I was happier eating another famous aubergine dish, moussaka, in Greek restaurants off the Tottenham Court Road.

In an effort this month to extend my aubergine horizons, I have been trying out one or two new, to me, recipes, none more successfully than the Turkish dish known as Imam Bayildi. …

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