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It was only around the 1400s when eggplants, otherwise known as aubergines, were first introduced to western European regions by the Arabs. It took quite a while for them to become popular, also because it was not clear at first that they could not be eaten raw. However, in the course of time, their slightly piquant and bitter taste gradually caught on with the population at large, as well as with chefs and gourmets.
This vegetable is appreciated for its versatility: it can be steamed, oven-baked, fried, grilled or pan-tossed as an ingredient for adding to sauces, stuffed or enjoyed in the form of a puree or rissole.
The most common type of eggplant is round or elongated, either purple or white in colour and its texture is spongy. For this reason, eggplants require particular attention during cooking since they tend to absorb any liquid or fat they come in contact with. Their flavour is somewhat bitter and piquant, even though it can vary in intensity according to the variety.
To mitigate this slightly bitter taste, it is advisable to slice them and sprinkle them with salt at least one hour before use, but purists claim this spoils their characteristic taste.
Here we have a number of delicious eggplant food pairings, with tips on how to combine the flavour of this ingredient with other food in the preparation of some amazing dishes.
Garlic. No pan-tossed eggplant would be complete without garlic. When these two ingredients are cooked together, they release a flavour reminiscent of fried mushrooms.
Herbs. With herbs such as basil, chives, marjoram, mint and oregano.
Lamb. Roast lamb nuggets are irresistibly drawn to eggplant puree previously smoked on the barbecue as in the Turkish dish of hukar begendi. Alternatively, lamb can be shredded and used to stuff aubergine before being oven baked together and served with a thick and moderately acidic yoghurt.
Red wine. Eggplants love red wines grown in the same hot southern sunshine as itself. For example, varietals such as Negroamaro or Primitivo.
Chocolate. Oddly enough, the pairing of this vegetable with chocolate belongs to the ancient tradition of the Amalfi Coast.
Goat's cheese. We are all familiar with its successful marriage with mozzarella but the pairing of roast eggplant and fresh goat's cheese is the height of refinement. Try it fried and spread with fragrant goat's cheese previously aromatized with fresh mint leaves.
Nutmeg, cinnamon and a pinch of brown sugar. A thick slice of eggplant fried in oil and sprinkled with this mixture makes a most intriguing dessert.
Artichoke. When diced and pan-tossed with artichoke hearts, the bitter note of eggplant is transformed into a complex flavour recalling the undergrowth.
Top chef pairings
In Italy, one of the most famous is that of the “contemporary eggplant”, the iconic dish of Expo 2015 in the interpretation by multi-starred chef Enrico Bartolini whose game is to cook, empty and recompose it in a mignon version.
A classic recipe of the French school is caviar d'aubergine, made famous by chef Bernard Loison and rediscovered by Gordon Ramsay in a variant enriched with herbs such as thyme, rosemary and crème fraiche.
Chef Toru Okuda of the Kojyu restaurant of Tokyo, who was recently awarded a Michelin star, includes it in one of his most amazing dishes: Grilled Ozaki beef sirloin, Kamo aubergine and Manganji pepper, all of which is topped by red miso. Kamo aubergine and Manganji pepper are traditional vegetables of Kyoto, and in this particular recipe, the bitterness of the aubergine and the spicy pepper add a light note to the beef fat. The red miso enhances the taste of umami.
Here is yet another fine dining version of this vegetable: Cornish monkfish, spiced eggplant, quinoa and burnt lemon puree is a dish signed by Daniel, owner-chef of the two Michelin-starred Midsummer House in Cambridge.