If the thought of an aubergine, eggplant or brinjal brings back memories of a mushy bitter vegetable, you are not alone. The great thing is that you can change that image, as these vegetables can be wonderful and tasty and a very good addition to our diet.
Here in South Africa, as in South and Southeast Asia, we call this humble vegetable a brinjal. It is more commonly known as an aubergine by the British and as an eggplant in North America and Australia. The name eggplant was first recorded in the 1700’s, mostly applied to the white varieties that resembled a goose or hen’s egg.
Brinjals are part of the nightshade family, together with potatoes, tomatoes and peppers. Research suggests that for some people this group of vegetables may aggravate arthritic symptoms, so should be avoided or eaten sparingly if you find you are in this category. There have been case reports of mild symptoms such as itchy skin or mouth, mild headache and stomach upset after touching or eating brinjals. This may be more common in people who are “atopic” or genetically predisposed to allergic hypersensitivity reactions, possibly due to the high concentration of histamines in the eggplant. Cooking the vegetable thoroughly seems to remove most of the allergenic potential, but not all. Aubergines also contain oxalate, so if you have a history of oxalate-containing kidney stones, then you should avoid consuming too much of this vegetable.
Don’t let the above scare you off, as for most people, aubergines can be a wonderful addition to the diet. They are a good source of fibre, vitamins B1, B6 and potassium, as well as copper, manganese and magnesium. The rich purple colour of the skin comes from a powerful anti-oxidant, nasunin, which has been found to protect the lipids (fats) in brain cell membranes.
All our cell membranes are almost entirely made up of a double layer of fats or lipids. These lipids are essential for letting nutrients into the cells, transporting waste out of the cell and for cellular communication, receiving instructions from messenger molecules, to tell the cell what to do. Nasunin protects these fatty acids in the lipid membrane, and also helps to move excess iron out of the body. It also may play a role in lowering the “bad” LDL cholesterol.
Storing, cooking and preparing
Brinjals are actually sensitive to both heat and cold, so are quite perishable. It is best to store them in a plastic bag in the fridge. They decay much faster when cut, but can be stored for around 3 days in the fridge after cooking them.
It is often recommended to tenderize and reduce the bitter taste of brinjals by salting them and leaving them to pull liquid out of the brinjals for about 30 minutes. Most of the newer varieties are not very bitter now, however, so this is not really necessary anymore. The flesh of the aubergine is capable of absorbing large amounts of fats and sauces during cooking, so they take on the flavour of the sauces well, and that is the trick to giving them great flavour. Take note that salting them before cooking will reduce the amount of oil that the brinjal will take in during the cooking process.
Eggplants can be used in many different ways, often used as a meat substitute in vegan and vegetarian cuisine. It is often used in curries in India or stewed as in the French ratatouille. They are often deep fried and made into the Italian parmigiana di melanzane or Greek moussaka or even made into dips such as baba ghanoush. They can even be hollowed out and stuffed with meat, rice or vegetables and baked. The combinations are endless.
Some ideas for the beautiful Brinjal:
Make Brinjal Bhaji, this is the Indian equivalent to the Middle Eastern Baba Ghanoush – treat it as a dip and serve with your favourite naan bread or veggie crudites.
The beautiful full flavours of Roasted tomato and brinjal soup
Let us not forget what put brinjals on the map…. Ratatouille