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The banes and benefits of aubergines

Aubergines were domesticated in India four thousand years ago and unanimously appreciated on the Asian continent and in Muslim countries for their culinary virtues. Europeans, however, disliked the taste of aubergines and, during the Renaissance, they sometimes called them mala insana (mad apples), believing they caused various ill effects. Aubergines have only found favour in Europe since the 16th century.
ST026-01 Effets aphrodisiaques aubergine Tacuinum sanitatis
© Bibliothèque Nationale de France - Aphrodisiac effects of the aubergine
​​represented in the manuscript Tacuinum sanitatis, around 1550

A favourite among Asians and Muslims

Solanum melongena, commonly known as eggplant or aubergines, were domesticated in India four thousand years ago. They gradually made their way to Asia, both as far east as Japan, as well as in the west, on the shores of the Mediterranean following the Arabian conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries. This fruit was appreciated for its culinary qualities and featured on both wealthy tables and on those of the poorer strata. Under Saracen influence, Spain adopted aubergines in the 10th century, and the Balkans, which discovered them through the Turks, integrated them into their cuisine in the 14th century. Southern Italy and Provence started to appreciate them from the 16th century. In the rest of Europe, it was not until the 19th century that prejudices abated, although consumption of the fruit was still not widespread. In Northern Europe, aubergines remained largely unknown until the 1960s. It is only over recent decades that the trend for Mediterranean cuisine, and nutritionists’ recognition of the fruit’s qualities, have led aubergines to feature prominently on tables across Europe. They can be prepared in many different ways. In Turkey, for example, there are no fewer than thirty recipes. In China, it is said that a woman is only ready for marriage if she is able to make at least twelve different dishes using aubergines.

The medicinal properties of aubergines, however, are not universally acknowledged. Arab doctors believed them to have some qualities, such as that of stimulating appetite, as long as they were well cooked. However, Avicenna, a 10th century Persian philosopher and physician, accused aubergines of being responsible for numerous illnesses, including leprosy and epilepsy. White aubergines are a traditional remedy in India and have long been seen as an effective treatment for diabetes. Western medicine is also ambivalent with regard to their qualities, even though the plant has been deemed edible since the 13th century. Until the 19th century, medicinal prescriptions (for example, poultices to treat burns) resembled culinary recipes and included warnings about the harmful effects of aubergines, such as melancholy or fever.

Suspicion in Western Europe

History has shown a large part of Western and Christian Europe to be suspicious of aubergines, or even repulsed by them. Mentioned here and there in medical and botanical books from the 12th century onward, the plant became more prevalent at the end of the 14th century, but remained more an object of curiosity and used for decorative purposes. The fruit was disliked for its acrid and bitter taste. Moreover, its tendency to turn brown once cut, made it appear dubious.

That fact that aubergines, like potatoes and tomatoes, belong to the family of Solanaceae, increased suspicion. They were therefore associated with other members of the same family with a reputation for being poisonous: deadly nightshade (due to its black fruit) and mandrake, a plant with an anthropomorphic root considered to be a powerful aphrodisiac and narcotic. These attitudes are reflected in some of the names given to aubergines in the 16th century: in Latin mala insana, or ‘mad apple’ (today melanzana in Italian), in German Doll Opffel, ‘apple that maddens’ or in French pomme d’amour, ‘love apple’, a term also given to the tomato for some time.

A suggestive fruit

Across Asia, Africa and Europe, aubergines have been attributed with aphrodisiac virtues. Their suggestive shape makes them a phallic symbol, found in Korean literature and in some Japanese haiku poems. In Provencal French, aubergines are nicknamed ‘viédaze’ (a donkey, dunce or an ignoramus). The tradition is still topical as, on social media, the aubergine emoji is used in a similar way, which is why Instagram banned it from its search engine in 2015.