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Why The Priest Fainted: An Ode To Eggplant

There are a couple of stories about the origins of Imam Bayildi, a Turkish eggplant dish that translates as "the priest fainted." One holds that upon tasting this dish, a priest swooned from the flavor. The other is that he fainted at the expense of all the olive oil used to make the dish. I blatantly disregard the latter story, for to me, good eggplant dishes can indeed make you swoon. Of course, for me (and a billion other people), it is in my blood. Translation: Eggplant originated in India.

While it is most often used as a vegetable, eggplant actually is a fruit, like the tomato. ... Just remember this joke: Knowledge is knowing that eggplant is a fruit; wisdom is not using it in fruit salad.

When I moved to the United States 20 years ago, I was surprised to find that most of my American friends did not share my love for this amazing fruit. While it is most often used as a vegetable, eggplant actually is a fruit, like the tomato. They are both members of the nightshade family. Just remember this joke: Knowledge is knowing that eggplant is a fruit; wisdom is not using it in fruit salad.

While eggplant had strong supporters in the West — Pope Pius IV (1559–'66) greeted guests with gifts of the plant — others called it "mad apple" for the theory that it caused insanity. In India and the Middle East where I grew up, eggplant has been welcome at the dinner table for thousands of years.

Speaking of insanity: When I got married, my husband loved most of my cooking but could not stand to eat eggplant. Considering my obsession with it, I decided to try every way to feed it to him. Initially I could only find the classic large, pear-shaped fruit with shiny, deep-purple skin, but more recently I have found colors ranging from purple to green to white to red. I've experimented with everything from Italian (smaller than the classic globe variety, with some light streaks on the skin), Indian (small and round) and Japanese (quite thin, with light purple skin). I'm thinking about trying the tiny round green Thai version, some of which are no bigger than peas.

I have been married for 17 years, and over the years, my husband and now my kids have tried — and sometimes even enjoyed — eggplant in many different renditions: stir-fried in Chinese dishes, deep-fried as Japanese tempura, smothered in cheese and baked (Italian-American eggplant Parmesan). My personal favorite preparation, though, is roasting eggplants over an open flame or in a hot oven. The result can then be mashed and mixed with sesame paste for the Middle Eastern dip baba ghannouj, cooked in an Indian-style bhartha with onions, tomatoes, cilantro and spices, or mixed with a white sauce and kasseri cheese to create a silken-textured Turkish dish, begendi — one of life's greatest pleasures.

I thought nothing about eggplant would surprise me — until Chef Todd Gray of Equinox restaurant in Washington, D.C., mentioned eating an eggplant gelato made with 50-year-old balsamic vinegar. So I guess I still have a lot to learn about this wonderful fruit. My husband is adamant that no amount of coercing will get him to taste eggplant gelato. The kids, so far, have said they are open to one bite.

Chefs' Eggplant Tips

-- "Never give them a free hand with the oil — they are terrible old soaks and will drink up however much you add," says Annie Bell, author of Gorgeous Vegetables. "Start with just a little, and with time they will behave themselves and soften up."

-- Bee Yinn Low, who runs the popular, says to soak the eggplant in saltwater to prevent it from turning brown before cooking. When ready to cook, drain off excess liquid and pat dry.

-- Chef Todd Grey of Equinox in Washington, D.C., combines eggplants with tomatoes or balsamic vinegar, as their acid pairs well with this fruit.

-- Chef Victor Casanova, chef de cuisine at Culina in Los Angeles, suggests slowly roasting eggplants, which brings out their flavor. He also recommends keeping recipes simple to allow the eggplant to really shine.

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Monica Bhide