Saturday, June 18, 2011

VEGETABLES OF BRAZIL - Eggplant (Berinjela)

Brazilians eat a lot of eggplant (Solanum melongena). It's available year-round in markets and supermarkets since most climatic conditions in Brazil are very well suited to cultivation of eggplant. That's really not surprising if you consider the origins of the vegetable - it was first cultived in India in prehistoric times, and temperatures are high almost year round in most of India just like Brazil. It's journey from India to Brazil passes from its native soil to the Middle East via Arab traders, thence on to Spain and Portugal during the period of Moorish occupation, and finally on to Brazil with Portuguese explorers, colonists and immigrants.

The Portuguese word for eggplant, berinjela, comes from a Mughal/Persian word meaning "plant and fruit" that was brought into Arabic and on to Spanish and Portuguese. Interestingly, the Portuguese then carried the word back to India where the current Hindi word for eggplant, brinjal, is a direct derivative of Portuguese berinjela. What goes around comes around.

Brazilian eggplants are normally of the dark-purple rounded variety rather than like those varieties more common in Asia which are a lighter shade of purple, thinner and more elongated. Those available in markets here tend to be smaller than their North American cousins, however. Since the characteristic bitterness of eggplant increases with size, Brazilian eggplants need not be salted and squeezed to eliminate bitter juices and are usually cooked directly.

Although Brazilians in general are enthusiastic carnivores, and vegetarianism in Brazil is barely on the radar, contemporary Brazilian chefs are beginning to use eggplant as the centerpiece of vegetarian main courses. In the many cultures which avail themselves of eggplants, its unique ability to provide a "meatiness" to a vegetarian dish often means that eggplant is the placeholder for meat in a main dish. These chefs are also aware that although eggplant isn't strongly-flavored itself, it absorbs and augments flavors of other vegetables cooked with it, and take advantage of that quality in creation of new dishes.

Flavors of Brazil will feature some traditional and contemporary recipes for eggplant Brazilian-style in the next few posts. Keep tuned.

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