One of the things we Dominicans are most grateful for is to have discovered eggplants (scientific name: solanum melongena) as a daily staple. Eggplants or aubergines are delicious, versatile and cheap. They grow all year round and complement every dish. They are fondly known as “the poor person’s meat”.
Eggplants are in fact fruits, not vegetables. They are closely related to potatoes and tomatoes, and belong to the solanaceae family. Aubergine stems tend to be thorny, and that fact has given rise to the Spanish saying “meterse en un berenjenal” which means something like getting into trouble.
Eggplants can be round, long or cylindrical and come in a whole spectrum of colours, from white to black, going through all shades of violet and purple. No matter what colour, aubergine skin is always shiny, firm and smooth to the touch.
Eggplants are originally from India and other Asian countries, where they have been grown for centuries. They were eaten in ancient Egypt, but appear to have been unknown in ancient Greece and Rome, as there is no mention of eggplants in any of the known ancient gastronomic texts. The Arabs brought them to the Iberian peninsula in the middle ages, and from there their fame spread to the rest of the world.
In ancient times it seems that eggplants were not eaten for their vitamin content or nutritional qualities, but for medicinal purposes: they are recommended for their diuretic and laxative qualities, and for arthritis sufferers due to their mineral content.
Their calcium content means eggplants are effective against rickets, dental cavities and other bone ailments. They are also good as a treatment for rheumatism, as well as diabetes and skin complaints.
In general, eggplants are digestible, nutritious and have laxative properties. They should be eaten ripe, never unripe or raw, because the raw fruits contain solamine, a toxic substance that is destroyed in the cooking process. Not bad for a fruit with just 25 calories, composed of 90% water.
Before cooking, some insist, that aubergines should be washed thoroughly to get rid of the bitter juices, and soaked in cold water with a few drops of lemon juice. Other cooks believe that eggplants will turn out lighter and tastier if they are cut in slices 1cm wide and placed in a colander, sprinkled with salt and left to stand for half an hour.
The sky’s the limit when it comes to the vast range of eggplants-based dishes. Here in the DR there is much creativity: besides this dish of roasted eggplants with eggs, it goes from typical fried slices to oriental tempura. Depending on how they are prepared, eggplants make an excellent main dish, or a side dish accompanying meat or fish.
A very Dominican dish would be stewed aubergines with pork: few things surpass this for taste. Try them scrambled with egg or sweet red peppers, in salads or appetizers, á la vinaigrette, caponata, with cream or au gratin, or a la parmigiana. In savoury bakes, use minced beef or cheese as a filling. Eggplants go well with ripe plantains in a tropical savoury bake. Life would not be complete without trying an eggplant lasagna, eggplant casserole, eggplant roulade or eggplants cannelloni. Leave a little room for the meatballs and don’t miss out on stuffed ones.
Himilce Tejada is a Dominican cookery and lifestyle writer for several magazines and newspapers. This was originally published by Diario Libre Newspaper, and translated by Aunt Ilana. Reproduced with permission from the author.
A traditional Dominican side dish, berenjenas asadas (roasted eggplants) are luscious, smoky and decidedly grown-up.
- 4 large eggplants
- 4 eggs
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil
- 1 bell pepper cut into small cubes
- 4 plum tomatoes cut into small cubes
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 3 cloves of garlic, sliced
- 1 tablespoon of chopped cilantro
- Put the eggplants directly on the fire in your stove. When the side on the fire has blackened turn until the whole eggplant has turned black.
- Immediately soak in cold water. Using a spoon, remove and discard the peel.
- Mash the eggplant flesh with a fork and reserve.
- Heat a tablespoon of oil over low heat in a skillet or pan. Cook and stir the onions until they turn transparent.
- Add the peppers, tomatoes and garlic. Cook and stir for a minute.
- Add the eggplants, simmer until most of the liquid it releases has evaporated.
- Add the eggs, mix and stir until the eggs set.
- Season with a pinch of pepper and salt to taste. Add the cilantro and stir.
- Remove from the heat. Serve hot as a side dish, or as a main dish.
If you are a vegan, omit the eggs. It will still taste very nice.
Besides the typical custom of serving as a side or main dish, I also love it as spread on a piece of cassava bread or toast. Very filling, delicious and light.