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A friend from Naples, a great gourmet and extraordinary traveller, claims that the best eggplant parmigiana he ever tasted was in a beach hut in the Caribbean, cooked by a Sicilian. While it has achieved international renown and is imitated all over the world, eggplant parmigiana – a dish of fried eggplant prepared with tomato sauce and cheese (here you find the full recipe) – remains an iconic dish representative of Italian cuisine.
The recipe probably originated from Sicily, which was the first Italian region where eggplants were introduced, during the Arab domination, before being permanently adopted by other parts of the south. Indeed, to this day, the regions of Sicily and Campania still argue over who invented the dish, although there are some differences: in Palermo, for example, they use semi-mature caciocavallo cheese and grated pecorino, while in Naples the recipe strictly calls for cow's milk mozzarella (Fior di latte) or smoked provola and grated parmesan.
The earliest written recipe for parmigiana is found in the book Cucina teorico pratica (cooking in theory and practice) by Ippolito Cavalcanti, which dates from 1837. There are many variations, but one of the most authoritative recipes is that of Jeanne Caròla Francesconi, in her book La vera cucina di Napoli (the real cuisine of Naples), considered the bible of Neapolitan food. We have to thank her for a special trick that makes for a truly sublime parmigiana: the sauce is prepared using beaten eggs and a few spoons of tomato sauce, to be spread over each layer of eggplants together with the other ingredients. The origin of the name is another bone of contention: some claim that it simply means “in the style of Parma”, thus shifting its origins northwards, while others with a more southern bent sustain that the name refers to the way the slices of eggplant are laid one on top of the other, reminiscent of the shutters known locally as ‘persiane’.
Now that you know all about the history of eggplant parmigiana, you are ready to make some for yourselves. So here are a few hints and tricks about how to prepare a perfect eggplant parmigiana.
- There is no need to salt and drain your eggplants: that slightly bitter flavour is part of the distinctive identity of this dish.
- Do not insist on trying to invent low-calorie versions of the original recipe, which was created as a single-course meal: just accept that you have to fry the eggplants in plenty of olive or peanut oil.
- If you are frying a lot of eggplants, the peanut oil will need changing halfway through the operation, whereas with olive oil that will not be necessary.
- There are two secrets to prevent the formation of residual liquid in your dish: drain the mozzarella a few hours before using it, or switch off the oven and leave it open with the dish of parmigiana inside for 30' after baking. This will make all the difference.
In some towns around Salerno and in Sicily, thick, melted chocolate is added between the layers of the parmigiana: this was historically a very common combination in Sicily. A layer of sliced hard boiled eggs is added to the rich Calabrian version, together with pecorino, caciocavallo and spicy fennel-seed sausage or prosciutto.
Whichever version you choose, never eat your parmigiana while it's still hot. It is best served lukewarm: like a good red wine, the longer it rests, the better it tastes.