The Garden Gate: Eggplants are stars of Mediterranean market

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By Ellen Probert Williamson
Vegetable gardens can be exciting to watch and tend while we look forward to future edible products as the great reward.

They can be even more interesting when you consider the history of some of our everyday foods. Take eggplants, for instance.

The people of the eastern Mediterranean regions eat lots of vegetables. They are especially fond of the so-called “fruit vegetables” — eggplant, zucchini and cucumbers.

Eggplants have been grown in the Middle East since ancient times. They originated in Persia, where the original word for them was badinjian. The Arabs added an article in front of it to make it al-badinjian. This word entered most of the European languages as aubergine, as it is still known today.

During the summer, stacks of shiny, deep-purple eggplants or aubergines are stars of markets from Athens to Tel Aviv. Eggplants can be fried, baked, stewed, stuffed or eaten in salads. They can be roasted, pickled or mashed. It is the universal vegetable in that part of the world. A Syrian or a Turk will often boast of having 1,000 recipes for eggplant.

A popular recipe is Imam bayildi, which means, “the imam fainted.” It is usually explained that the iman, or Muslim holy man, lost consciousness as soon as he sniffed the eggplant’s delectable scent — or that he was overcome by the amount of oil and butter which went into it.

Two great empires brought unity to the cooking of the Middle East, the spread of Islam and the establishment of a great Islamic state which reached across Asia, North Africa and the Mediterranean. This combination is famous for a sophisticated lifestyle and an elaborate cuisine.

The banquets of the courts of the Caliphs of Baghdad were famous for their lavishness. They combined foods of the desert with those of Syria and Damascus, which had formerly been the capital of the region before Baghdad.

The enormous Ottoman empire expanded into the heart of Europe from the 14th century to almost the beginning of the 20th century. It produced an elaborate food system, relying heavily on native fruits and vegetables — notably eggplants.

The Sultans’ courts became notorious for their luxury. The Imperial kitchens catered for 4,000 to 5,000 people on the days when the cabinet, or divan, met — and for up to 10,000 on special occasions such as the reception for a foreign ambassador. A classic Ottoman cuisine had thus been developed.

Most of the cooks were slaves who had been bought, captured or given as gifts to Venetian traders. They were trained in special schools by experienced chefs to fill the important position of cook. They could, by increasing excellence, earn their freedom and even rise to an important position in the state. Koprulu Mehmet Pasa, the Ottoman empire’s most powerful vizier, began his career as a cook.

It has been said that picking up a fork to eat a Middle Eastern dish of eggplants is as much a historical act as picking up a shovel for an archaeological excavation.

The world’s oldest recorded eggplant recipe appears on a clay tablet inscribed in cuneiform in Mesopotamia 3,700 years ago. Some researchers decided that the Mesopotamian concept of good food was different from our modern tastes. They liked their foods soaked in oil or fat, were obsessed with all members of the onion family, and used much less salt.

Next to eggplants, the most popular vegetable in the ancient world was probably the cucumber. In the old quarters of Istanbul and other cities, stalls along the sidewalks sold cucumbers as a refreshing treat during the hot, humid days of summer. The poetic and musical language of Arabic has several terms for refreshing cucumbers and succulent eggplants.

There are many references to cucumbers in the Bible. The prophet Isaiah lamented their absence after the Israelites had left Egypt, where the cucumbers were part of their daily diet. Cucumbers were extensively cultivated in ancient Egypt, and hundreds of acres of them are grown there today. The scriptural description of the cucumber fields mentions “a lodge in a garden of cucumbers.” This refers to the small house or lodge usually built in the center of the field of fruit where observers kept watch to see that no marauders stole the ripening cucumbers.

Cucumber plantations by the acre still attract the traveler’s eye as he crosses the plains of Palestine, each with its little elevated cottage from which the wary watchman can make certain that no one steals the fruit.

A Buddhist legend tells that of the 60,000 offspring of Sagarra’s wife, the first was a cucumber, whose descendant climbed to heaven on his own vine.

Just eating a garden cucumber or an eggplant dish is a real link with almost unbelievably ancient history, widespread geography and with our long-ago ancestors.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.