The Rich History of Eggplant or Aubergine

Eggplants in the 14th Century
Eggplants in the 14th Century

An interesting website, Zester, explores the culture of food and drink – including a range of different species with potential for exploitation, as well as recipes about cooking them. Hopefully it does not give too much encouragement of wild collection (Sept 17: see comment below) or unsustainable fishing practices!

I was particularly interested in an article, “Eggplant’s Rich History: From ancient Arab diets to Sicilian recipes, the versatile eggplant has evolved around the globe”. Two papers in Annals of Botany provide a remarkable insight into the appearance of the earliest eggplants/aubergines used as food, and the ways they were cultivated. Amazingly, the first reliable written record comes from China in 59 BC. From the seventh century, selection for shape, size and taste became intense. See Ancient Chinese Literature Reveals Pathways of Eggplant Domestication for a summary, or this link to the pdf for the fully illustrated work,. Of course, the selection and evolution process continues today, with the most notable improvement being the selection of varieties without bitterness – the salting before cooking which was essential a decade ago is unnecessary with modern varieties.

Eggplant from China
Eggplant/Aubergine from China
In Europe, the first written records come from a 14th century translations of an 11th-century Arabic manuscript known as Taqwim al-Sihha bi al-Ashab al-Sitta, produced in northern Italy. The Tacuinum Sanitatis is richly illustrated and gives a window on late medieval life and cultivation of plants including eggplants and we published the most wonderful pictures from it – See for the whole paper, or have a look here for just the pictures of eggplants being grown and harvested from the 14th century.
Corn segregating 3:1 yellow:white from Zester
Corn segregating 3:1 yellow:white from Zester

Meanwhile, back to Zester, and an article gives a range of ways to cook corn/maize/Zea mays. I’m unconvinced that any is better than lightly boiled with butter. But the picture highlighting the article shows a hybrid line, not F1, but segregating 3:1 for yellow and white kernels/endosperm. I make it 444:149 . This month’s highlight issue of Annals of Botany on Genes in Evolution has lots more about the origin of crops including maize, and the genetics behind evolution, some summarized in my article about genes in evolution and the genetics of speciation and biodiversity.

Genes in Evolution Cover
Genes in Evolution Cover


  1. More on harvesting of wild plants:
    Sustainable wild plant harvesting proves a global success
    15 September 2010 from IUCN:
    “Worldwide application of a new standard for sustainable harvesting of wild medicinal, aromatic, dye and food plants and trees is charting new ways to protect the species and their habitats and benefit the communities that depend on them, according to a new report from world wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC, a joint programme of IUCN and WWF – World Wildlife Fund

  2. Nature, 13 Sept 2010, has a News article about looking at RNA (not the commonly studied DNA) in preserved archaeological specimens of crops – in this case maize 700 to 850 years old. RNA molecules could help to reveal plant breeding in action hundreds of years ago, showing nutritional properties and other selective features. However, unlike the illustrations in the publications discussed above, of similar age, the RNA analysis says little about the appearance and cultivation methods of the early domesticated forms of the species.

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