Summer means that beloved eggplants are back in abundance! This season, the delicious staple of Turkish cuisine will be exploding fresh into the markets of Istanbul, boasting a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes that catch the eye and delight the tastebuds.
The family name of the eggplant species bodes ominously for a fruit that much of the nation chows down on weekly. Part of the nightshades family, also referred to as Deadly Nightshades, the plant was shunned when it arrived in Europe from Asia as it was thought to be poisonous due to its bright colors. In Renaissance Italy, it was even given the name mala insana or “crazy apple,” and for a long time was used in Europe merely for ornamental purposes.
The purple fruit
The eggplant does contain toxins in the leaves and flowers, just like its relatives: potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers. However, to experience solanine (the toxin found in the plant) poisoning from eggplants themselves, you would have to eat the equivalent of 36 of them, whole, large, and raw in one sitting.
However, the fruit (though treated as one, eggplant is not a vegetable) has long been cultivated and enjoyed across cultures, as it traveled from Asia to India, Africa, the Middle East, and the Anatolian region. Through the years, it has been grown in many sizes, shapes and colors, from persimmon-colored versions in Ethiopia, to tiny green ones in Thailand, and the small white egg-shaped Indian species—from which the name “eggplant” originates.
However, it is the purple eggplant, thought to have been first cultivated in China, that we see most in the Turkish markets and on our plates. Whatever its iteration, the eggplant has become integral to this region’s cuisine and every lokanta or meyhane will feature eggplant somewhere on their menu; whether it’s baked and stuffed, or roasted and whipped into a silky, cold mezze.
Eggplant dishes & where to try them
- For something a little different, look for İmam Bayıldı. Literally translating to “The imam fainted,” this dish of eggplant braised with tomato is said to be so delicious, it caused an imam who tasted it to pass out from pleasure. Try this dish at Hacı Abdullah Lokantası, a go-to restaurant for Ottoman cooking established in 1876. İstiklal Caddesi, Orhan atlı Apaydın Sokak, No.11/A, Asmalımescit; T: (0212) 244 25 43
- Hünkar Beğendi, which translates to “the sultan liked it,” is lamb stew served on a bed of creamy roasted eggplant puree. Taking its origins from the Ottoman kitchens, the eggplant is long roasted over a charcoal grill, and then peeled, mashed, and given heft with milk and cheese. At Karaköy Lokantası, you’ll find crowds of business people chowing down a fabulous version of this at lunchtime, served with either slow-cooked beef or chicken. Atif Yilmaz Caddesi No.9/A; T:(0212) 293 85 61
- There is also Turkish style Şakşuka, which is comprised of fried eggplant, zucchini, potato, garlic yogurt and fresh tomato sauce. Sakşuka is eaten as a mezze, but in summer can be served a light meal. Asmalı Cavit offers it as one of it’s many mezze. Asmalımescit Sokak No.16/D, Asmalımescit; T: (0212) 292 49 50
How to pick and cook eggplants
Eggplant is often noted for its bitter taste, which comes from nicotine that resides in the seeds (don’t worry, you’d have to eat around 13 kilograms of eggplant for the nicotine equivalent of one cigarette). That’s why recipes often call for eggplant to be sliced and salted before cooking, as this reduces their bitterness. It can also help to reduce the amount of oil that eggplants soak up during cooking.
While modern varieties of eggplant are bred to be much less bitter, you can also improve the odds by choosing male eggplants over female, as they have fewer seeds. Do this by taking a look at the indentation (left by the blossom) on the bottom of an eggplant. If the scar is long, it’s female. If it’s small and circular, its male.
When shopping for eggplant at your local pazar look for firm, smooth, glossy fruit with bright green stalks that are heavy for their size. The smaller they are, the fewer seeds they have. Then get them home and enjoy.