Eggplants have been a part of the diet in Israel for a long time, but they are not indigenous to this part of the world. Rather, like the Prickly Pear (Sabras), they are immigrants. The first mention of cultivated eggplant is from the 1st century BCE in China. Eggplants clearly made it into the national psyche there as, traditionally, Chinese brides had to supply 12 recipes for eggplants in order to enter into a marriage. Travelers brought the eggplant west with them on their way back from the Orient, and eggplants made it to European markets during the middle ages.
The first eggplants seen in the West were small and white. Thus, Europeans called them egg-plants. These small, white vegetables/fruits were bitter. Selective breeding led to larger, and increasingly more purple plants which were less bitter. It is these eggplants that we most often see on grocery shelves.
Because eggplants grow well in warm climates, the Mediterranean basin soon became a comfortable new home for the plant. In particular, Turkey, long a cross-road for different cultures, took to the plant; currently today, Turkey produces 19% of the world’s eggplants. The common dish Baba Ganoush is Arabic for “a spoiling, cuddly father” – a good name for the inside pulp of this fruit/vegetable. Only after a bit of cooking, the flesh of the eggplant breaks down and turns into a mush.
To peel or not to peel, that is the question?
The skin of the eggplant, in contrast to the mushy flesh, is resilient, tough, and (in most cases) purple. Many who cook eggplant would prefer to remove the skin – it does contribute to the bitter taste which sometimes accompanies eggplants. New studies, however, suggest that just like for most other fruits/vegetables, an inordinate amount of the vitamins and minerals are located in or just beneath the skin. In particular, nasunin (what makes eggplants purple in the first place) has many benefits. The benefit to the plant is that nasunin protects the fruit from the harmful rays of the sun acting as eggplant sunscreen.
For people, nasunin is an anti-oxidant. Anti-oxidants are important to neutralize free radicals and thus are anti-aging nutrients. (As my birthday is coming up next month, please pass me some more of that spicy eggplant salad!) Nasunin inhibits free radicals at their source, by binding with Iron.
Think of chemicals in your body as children in a nursery school with toys. Each child is happily playing with his/her toy. Then, all of a sudden, one boy’s ball rolls under the fence. He is unhappy, and goes to take some other child’s toy. The second child then becomes unhappy, and steals someone else’s. This continues over and over until the nursery school is in disarray. Eventually, with all those unhappy children, something gets broken.
Some anti-oxidants are like teachers who go around the nursery school, trying to give each child a new toy. Sometimes this works and sometimes the child just wants their old toy back. Nasunin, though, is like a string which attaches each toy to the appropriate child, thus preventing free radicals, lost and stolen toys, and general disarray. Free radicals are very damaging for the nervous system (all those crying, miserable children running around the nursery school can give you a headache), so stopping them at the source protects your brain.
The other benefit nasunin gives to the body is that is curbs growth of new blood vessels. What could be good about that? Well, generally, we have all the blood vessels we need. When does the body generate lots of new blood vessels? That occurs when we develop growths. These growths need an increased blood supply to thrive and so our bodies produce new blood vessels. Some growths are cancerous – so by curbing formation of new blood vessels, eggplants are part of a program for slowing cancer.
So much good stuff in eggplant skin. Next time you cook eggplant – KEEP THE SKIN ON!
(Thanks to Moshe for piquing my curiosity.)