Melanzane, or eggplant, is a staple of Southern Italian cooking. Diners are frequently introduced to the subtle flavors of melanzane in the classic Italian casserole known as eggplant Parmesan.
Eggplant has a fascinating history of both culinary and medicinal use. Here's a brief history of the fruit of the melanzane plant.
Melanzane Is Indigenous to Asia and India
If you love eggplant, imagine living where the plant grows wild. In locations including Burma, India, Northern Thailand, and Southern China, melanzane plants are native species that have been cooked and consumed for centuries.
The wild melanzane plants were domesticated and cultivated beginning in ancient times. A 300 BCE Sanskrit document makes note of the plant and discusses the fruit in positive terms. In China, evidence of melanzane cultivation is found in documents from the Western Jin Dynasty written as early as the 3rd century CE.
The eggplant reached Southern Italy by the 9th century CE. Arabs brought the fruits along with them as they expanded their territory into the region.
Melanzane was consumed by fearless foodies in the Calabrian and Sicilian regions of Italy, although some people were initially wary of the funny egg-shaped produce. In ancient Roman gardens, white-colored melanzane species may have been cultivated as purely ornamental plants.
Melanzane Has Many Names
The melanzane plant has many names. Some ancient names for melanzane are descriptions of the plant's positive attributes. The ancient Sanskrit document referred to the plant with names that meant excellent vegetable and royal melon.
Some of the many names for melanzane include:
- Aubergine (French)
- Eierfrucht (German)
- Badenjan (Persian)
- Tabendjalts (Berber)
- Berenjena (Spanish)
The name melanzane is derived from the name mala insana, meaning mad apple. This Renaissance-era term for the plant sprung from the belief that the fruit made people angry and full of melancholy.
Melanzane Was Used As Medicine
In early cultures, eggplant was considered a medicinal ingredient as well as a food source. All parts of the plants including the roots were used to treat ailments.
Some illnesses thought to be treated with melanzane include:
- Dental issues
- Intestinal upset
Other ancient medical practitioners believed the eggplant caused more problems than it cured. Everything from pimples to epilepsy was blamed on the melanzane.
It was once thought that salting and soaking removed risks from the plant. Many traditional Italian chefs continue to salt and soak eggplant before cooking, but the steps are not necessary to enjoy the healthy fruit.
Melanzane Parmigiana Has Interesting Origins
The earliest detailed reference to a type of eggplant Parmesan occurs in an 18th century cookbook. The early versions of the dish were made with butter, cream sauce, cinnamon, and other spices and then covered with Parmesan cheese. The dish included tomatoes after their arrival in the New World around the same time period.
The origin of the name eggplant Parmesan has long been debated by scholars and chefs. Some people believe the name refers to the use of Parmigiano-Reggiano in the dish. Others speculate the name came from a term for a wicker casserole-dish sleeve called a damigiana.
Still others believe the name eggplant Parmesan refers to the Parma region of Northern Italy. However, most experts agree that the dish has its origins in Southern Italy. Another theory holds that the dish's name is derived from the Sicilian word parmiciana, which means Persian.
One of the more interesting name-origin theories is that the dish is named after slatted shutters common in Sicily. The louvered slats were called palmigiana. The layered eggplant is said to resemble the stacked shutter slats.
No matter where the name eggplant Parmesan originates, the dish is a favorite of people around the world today. Whether you call the fruit melanzane, eggplant, or aubergine, the savory casserole made with the fruit is a memorable and delicious comfort food that complements pasta, veal, and fish dishes.
Call us or come visit Picano's Italian Grille today, and enjoy a plate full of delicious, authentically prepared melanzane. We also cater and deliver eggplant dishes for your office party, banquet, or other event.