Eggplant vs. Aubergine

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Kristen Frederickson

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As in so many other aspects of their character, British attitudes toward anything French are contradictory. They insist on pronouncing the “h” in “herb” and the “t” in “fillet,” resolutely asserting their independence from the French language. On the other hand, they choose to honor the French in their choice of words like “rocket” over the American/Australian “arugula” (derived from the Latin eruca sativa and later the Italian “rucola”), “courgette” over “zucchini”(from the Italian for “little squash”) and “beef mince” over “ground beef” (although in my many forays into British butcher shops I have never found one that minced the beef. They all grind it, but call it “mince,” derived from the Old French “mincier,” to “make smaller.”

And so it goes with the elegant term “aubergine,” the British and French word for the far humbler-sounding American “eggplant.” They are one and the same, but the British will go for the French word every time. Aubergines belong to the exotically-named food group “nightshades,” a diverse group that belong to the scientific order Polemoniales and the scientific family Solanacaea.

Believe it or not, the nightshade group of plants is so widely varied that along with eggplants, it includes peppers, tobacco, morning glory, potatoes, and tomatoes.

How did the aubergine get its name, and after that metamorphose into “eggplant”? The question is fraught with mystery and controversy. Food historian Mark Vogel has a great deal to say on the subject of demystifying the humble vegetable at FoodForThoughtOnline.net

General wisdom does seem to agree that the word “aubergine” goes all the way back to Sanskrit, a classical language of India, a corruption of the name “vatinganah” which means “fart be gone.”

Seriously. It suppresses flatulence.

Etymologist William Casselman investigates the evolution of terminology even further, telling us that from the Sanskrit, apparently, the word developed into the Persian and Arabic terms “badingan” and “al-badhinjan.” Arabic-speaking Moors conquered Spain and brought aubergines with them, morphing the term into the Catalan language–based “asalberginia.” The French picked this up as “aubergine,” and English nabbed the word late in the 1700s.

When aubergines were brought to the United States in the 18th century, their variety were white, or yellow, and shaped like eggs, hence the development of the rather unromantic word “eggplant.” Trust practical Americans to rob the poor aubergine of its exotic heritage in one fell swoop.

Now that there are more typical purple eggplants everywhere, the French term “aubergine” has resurfaced to describe everything from JCrew cashmere sweaters to bathroom tile colors.

No matter the name, this vegetable is a beautiful, affordable, versatile little guy who essentially behaves like an impressionable teenager hanging out with a lot of strong personalities: he takes on the flavor of whoever you put him with. The eggplant is very happy spending time with garlic, with tomatoes, with onions, with sesame, with miso (just see the images above!). The possibilities are endless. And consider its health benefits… the perfect date-night vegetable if you pair it with beans.

Photo Credit: Kristen Frederickson