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Eggplants got their start many thousands of years ago in India. From there they spread westward into Persia and the Near East and eastward into China and Southeast Asia. For a time very long ago, fashionable ladies in the Orient used a black dye made from eggplant to stain and polish their teeth.

Eggplants did not come to Europe until the Middle Ages. Many people at the time were wary of this beautiful and mysterious vegetable. Some thought that eating an eggplant could make you all lovey-dovey. They called the plants "love apples." In Italy people thought eggplants could make you crazy. Their name for eggplant is still melanzzane or "crazy apple."

The first eggplants to reach England were a smaller, yellowish-white variety whose fruits were oval in shape and looked like goose eggs. That's how they got the English name "eggplant." Though the deep purple beauties came along not too much later, the eggplant's funny English name has pretty much held up throughout the English speaking world.

Eggplants came to the United States in the 1600's. For their first 300 years here, however, they were grown mostly for their beauty, but not to eat. They looked suspicious. Many people thought they were poisonous. It was only with the arrival of immigrants from Italy and Greece that we came to learn how pleasurable eggplant could be when prepared in the right way, in the right kinds of dishes.

How it's eaten

Don't try to eat eggplant raw. That way, it tastes truly icky. It tastes like a sponge dipped in vinegar.

We mostly eat eggplant either pickled or cooked. The spices in pickling help cover over the raw plant's bitter taste. What you have left is its chewiness, which some people like. Cooking drives the bitterness away and leaves you with something that's chewy and mild.

Most people don't eat cooked eggplant just on its own, however. They combine it with other juicy things, so the eggplant's spongy quality can soak up those other juices.

A number of national dishes take advantage of eggplant's sponginess. Eggplant Parmesan, an Italian dish, combines eggplant with cheese, tomato sauce, and spices. Moussaka, a Greek dish, puts it together with lamb, onions, a creamy sauce and spices. Ratatouille, a French dish, joins eggplant with tomatoes, peppers, onions, and zucchini.

It's when eggplant is put together artfully with a few good friends that it really comes into its own.