Words To Eat By

The surprising stories behind our food names

Eggplant vs. Aubergine

Madde Apple Parmesan & Swans Egge Rollatini.

Ever wonder why English speakers on either side of the Atlantic call their vegetables by such different names? What we call zucchini, they call courgette. Our snow pea is their mangetout. What we know as squash, they know as marrow. And what we call eggplant, they call aubergine, which to many ears sounds much more elegant.

I for one, though, like that the glossy pear-shaped vegetable I cook so often for dinner should be called eggplant. It's a curious name considering that the large purple variety so vastly outnumbers the smaller white one which John Gerard described in his sixteenth-century Herball, or General Historie of Plants as having "the bignesse of a Swans egge" and which obviously gave the entire species the name we know it by today here in the United States—not to mention in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia where the varieties once cultivated were yellow or white and shaped like goose eggs.

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When it wasn't being compared to a swan's egg, the eggplant was sometimes referred to as a "madde apple," no doubt because it belongs to the nightshade family which has long been known to include many highly toxic plants. Folk wisdom held that the eggplant would make the eater go mad. The tomato and potato, by the way, are also members of the family, and both were similarly viewed with suspicion when they were introduced to Europe from the New World. In Italian to this day, the eggplant is a melanzana, from the Latin mala insana, or "apple of insanity." (Idea for future post: why so many fruits and vegetables have names that trace back to apples.)


In France, on the other hand, it's an aubergine—which has no more to do with the oeuf than the melanzana does with the uovo. What it lacks in egginess, the aubergine more than makes up for in history and its circuitous meanderings through ancient lands and languages. In Sanskrit, it was a vatinganah (literally, "anti-wind vegetable"), which the Persian Empire naturalized to badingan. When the Persians conquered Arabia, they brought their badingans with them, where they acquired the Arabic definite article al (as did other words derived from Arabic such as alchemy, alcohol and alcove) and were henceforth known as al-badhinjan. When the Arabs, in turn, invaded Spain, their eggplants lost the article and were mispronounced as berengena. So identified were the eggplants with Arabia that when Cervantes wrote his masterpiece Don Quijote de la Mancha, he named his fictitious Moorish author Cide Hamete Benengeli, which humorously meant something like "eggplant-eater." Up in the northern region of Catalonia, the eggplant was an alberginia, which the French transformed into aubergine, and it is from them that the British appropriated their name for the vegetable, as they similarly did so many other French food names (remember the courgette and mangetout?).


Here in the United States, however, eggplants have always been eggplants plain and simple—at least since Mary Randolph provided the very first all-American recipes for them in her 1824 The Virginia Housewife. Despite the fact that she calls for "purple ones," the recipes—two under the same heading—are titled, quite simply, "Egg Plant."

The purple ones are best, get them young and fresh, pull out the stem, and parboil them to take off the bitter taste; cut them in slices an inch thick, but do not peel them, dip them in the yelk [sic] of an egg and cover them with grated bread, a little salt and pepper, when this has dried, cover the other side in the same way; fry them a nice brown. They are very delicious, tasting much like soft crabs. The egg plant may be dressed in another manner, scrape the rind and parboil them, cut a slit from one end to the other, take out the seeds, fill the space with a rich forcemeat, and stew them in well seasoned gravy, or bake them and serve up with gravy in the dish.

Ina Lipkowitz, Ph.D., is a lecturer at MIT and the author of Words To Eat By: Five Foods and a Culinary History of the English Language.

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