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Americans are often wrong about many things: how to spell and pronounce aluminium, what constitutes deadly force, tea. But a rather large American crime is renaming the elegant aubergine. They call it eggplant, and thereby strip it of its inherent dignity and glory.
This plant groweth in Egypt almost everywhere… bringing forth fruit of the bigness of a great cucumber…. We have had the same in our London gardens, where it hath borne flowers, but the winter approaching before the time of ripening, it perished: nothwithstanding it came to bear fruit of the bigness of a goose egg one extraordinary temperate year… but never to the full ripeness.- The Herball or General History of Plants, 1657
Admittedly, as seen above, even 17th century botanists felt the need to compare the aubergine to an egg, and this simple observation (visually accurate) was clearly the inspiration for the American name. But, as usual, The English (by way of the French) went deeper in search of inspiration and we ended up with ‘aubergine’ as a result of a clever little bastardisation of the Arabic “al-badinjan.“
Equally delightful are the vast range of aubergine classes- ‘Harris Special Hibush’, ‘Burpee Hybrid’, ‘Black Magic’, ‘Classic’, ‘Dusky’, and ‘Black Beauty’. Special mention is necessary for ‘Little Fingers’, ‘Ichiban’, ‘Pingtung Long’, and ‘Tycoon’. I imagine the Tycoon Aubergine is much enjoyed by classic romance novel heroes like Christian Grey.
I was wandering through the aisles of a new supermarket I was trying out the other day, when, nestled in the fruit and veg aisle, I found a cluster of brilliantly violaceous aubergines. I picked them up confidently, like I knew exactly what to do with them, and strolled to the checkout, certain everyone was watching me and thinking “Now there’s a woman who knows how to handle an aubergine!” Given the use to which youngsters now put the word ‘eggplant’ (see #eggplantfriday on Instagram and don’t thank me later), you can see why I couldn’t have this smug monologue with any word other than aubergine.
Upon arrival in my kitchen however, flush with excitement, I realised actually that I may not be as much of an aubergenious as I thought.
I hadn’t the patience for a tagine or a parmigiana, no way was I going to make any sort of baba ganoush or similar dip, and, large Lebanese immigrant population notwithstanding, I don’t have any Lebanese friends here in Lagos I could call to come round and get involved.
Did you know, by the way, that if you eat enough aubergine- 9kg or the aubergine equivalent of a small child- you may finally be able to quit your filthy smoking habit? Here are two horrifying aubergine truths: firstly, the amount of nicotine consumed by eating aubergines may be comparable to being in the presence of a smoker, depending on the cooking method. Secondly, 9 kg (20 lbs) of aubergine contains about the same amount of nicotine as a cigarette.
I felt strangely stubborn, so rather than google a recipe, I fumbled about a bit in the kitchen under the judgemental gaze of my cook. I got some butter out of the fridge, heated up a heavy pan, and started grating some onions and garlic. Almost everything in the world tastes amazing with butter, onion and garlic so I figured I was halfway there. Butter now sizzling fatly away, I washed and sliced my aubergine and placed them in the pan. I added the garlic and onion. I paused, then added some sliced peppers and sprinkled in salt and black pepper. My cook was starting to look impressed, so I gave him a look that said “You haven’t seen anything yet, friend” then I got a wooden spoon and tossed it all together. I paused again, thought, then added in some more butter (always wise) and a healthy spoonful of balsamic/tomato chutney, then got the spoon involved again. I went back to the fridge, hoping to find some final thing to tie it all together. My cook was incredibly interested in this now, so I knew I couldn’t shut the fridge without adding something in, so I was pathetically happy to spy some bacon loitering behind a tupperware container full of fried snails. I sliced it up and tossed it in the pan. The smells in the air went from “okay, garlic butter, big effing deal” to “What joy is this upon the air?! What sorcery? What soul-stirring deliciousness?” and I let my cook taste and compliment me to his satisfaction.
The thing with aubergines is they’re heavier than you think. They can, on their own, fill you up like you deserve, even though they’re often thought of as a side-vegetable or base ingredient. Nicotine aside, they’re also wonderfully healthy, cook quickly, and have this sly ability to absorb flavour like a meat. This meant that the last-minute bacon addition took my aubergines from zero to hero- as bacon is wont to do- and with a total cooking time of less than 15 minutes, I had a meal I could eat, happily, with minimal guilt. (Don’t worry about the butter.)
1 large aubergine sliced, 1 medium red onion grated , 3-4 cloves of garlic grated, a pinch of salt and black pepper (the former, sea salt and the latter freshly ground if possible), as much butter as you can handle ( I never tell people how much butter to use, it’s like telling them what sort of God to pray to), 1/2 a scotch bonnet (sliced), a large tablespoon of tomato balsamic chutney* and 3 rashers of bacon, chopped.
METHOD: Heat your pan, and toss in half your butter. When it’s sizzling but not completely melted, add in your aubergine in thin slices. Toss, then add in everything else, including the rest of your butter and chutney right before the bacon. Sautee until your kitchen smells like a favourite memory (about 10 mins).
HOW TO SERVE: As a whole dish on its own, as topping for a plain salad or, and this is what I did the second time I made it, as the piece de resistance to a home made sub. (Slice a ciabatta in half, top with tomato sauce or homemade pasta sauce, then layer lettuce and your sauteed bacon aubergine mess on top. It will ruin you in a way you didn’t know you needed.) I am told this dish tastes even better with some grated or melted cheese on top, but as I believe cheese is a great evil, I cannot comment.
*I buy my chutney ready made, cuz I’m lazy, but you can make your own using this recipe + adding balsamic vinegar to it.