Originating in southern and eastern Asia, aubergines have long since established themselves as important staples in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine. Anyone who has visited Greece will doubtless have returned with fond memories of moussaka, built on foundations of sweet, smoky aubergine, and dishes such as ratatouille, parmigiana and baba ghanoush are equally as popular and important to their respective national gastronomic traditions.
And yet, you may well wonder why the so called "king of vegetables" was so quickly adopted by food cultures across the globe. The Romans believed aubergine to be poisonous – it’s not, by the way – and called it mala insana, literally, the apple of insanity. The name stuck – melanzana is Italian for aubergine – but the suspicion did not, and nowadays, it’s hard to deny that when properly cooked, aubergine is something special. It becomes wonderfully savoury with a hint of natural smokiness that makes it an excellent meat alternative for vegetarians.
That said, I’ve turned my fair share of aubergines into stodgy piles of beige gloop over the years. Aubergines are at their best when you’ve got some colour on them, but they’ll absorb unpleasant amounts of oil if you give them the chance, so they should always be treated with a bit of care. So, are you ready to take on an aubergine?
Spicy Aubergine Salad by Martin Wishart
Although we’re more au fait with aubergines as part of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes, Martin Wishart takes inspiration from the east for his punchy aubergine salad recipe. Aubergines are great at carrying savoury flavours, so they fit perfectly amongst the powerful, umami tastes of Asian cuisine. Martin’s dressing is a delicate balance of sweet, salty, sour and umami, which he splashes over rounds of lightly browned aubergine to make a deliciously simple salad.
2 medium aubergines
100ml of soy sauce
100ml of mirin
60ml of rice wine vinegar
30g of caster sugar
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
4 spring onions, sliced
Top and tail the aubergines and quarter them lengthways. Cut each quarter into 1cm-thick slices, cover with cold water in a bowl and leave to soak. After 15 minutes, drain and pat dry with kitchen paper.
Combine the soy sauce, mirin, rice wine vinegar and sugar then add the garlic and spring onions and set aside. In a large pan, warm enough sunflower oil to cover the aubergine. When the oil has reached 170˚C, add the aubergine and cook until soft in the middle. Remove the aubergine from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain off any excess oil. (You might have to cook this in two batches to ensure consistent cooking of the aubergine slices).
While it’s still warm, add the aubergine to the dressing and mix together. Leave to rest for a few minutes before serving.