The Eggplant

by עדי נמיה-כהן_ע…
23/05/2021

In many places around the world, the eggplant is considered to be the king of vegetables.  It is the subject of songs and sayings, mentioned in literature, and even became an expression of identity.  Countless recipes can be prepared using eggplant, ranging from the salty to the savory, including eggplant jam.  Many cuisines feature eggplant - from the Indian kitchen it migrated to the Arab kitchen and eventually spread to kitchens in the Balkans and Turkey where the eggplant is the star of many dishes.  This journey about eggplant starts in the Givati Parking Lot, and travels to the palaces of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad, and from there returns to Jerusalem, to the Sephardic Jewish kitchen of the 20th century.  A journey that begins in a garbage can.

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Archaeological excavations in the Givati Parking Lot, under the direction of Yana Tchekhanovets and Dr. Doron Ben-Ami, uncovered the remains of a market stretching down the slopes of the Temple Mount that date from the beginning of the Abbasid period (the second half of the 8th century CE). Remains of buildings in a market complex are very rare, and researchers assume that market stalls were temporary structures, that is to say, made of wood or woven materials. In contrast to the “lack” of architectural elements, a number of cisterns containing glass, pottery, and wooden vessels were found within the complex, cast aside apparently because of slight defects. Additionally, organic remnants were found inside these vessels - animal remains (fish bones, bird bones, and eggshells) and many plant remains and were preserved in an unusual way.

Generally, in archaeological excavations in Israel, ancient organic finds are preserved because they are burnt, as part of destruction or unintentional fire. But in the market complex, the cisterns were not burnt, and the seeds which were found there had not rotted or disintegrated for over 1000 years! The chemical processes responsible for this unusual state of preservation are, for the time being, unexplainable. The excavation determined that the seeds were found in cisterns having 2 distinct usages: cesspits and garbage pits. Garbage pits were used by the stall owners in the market to hold their unused stock or goods that were damaged and were thrown away. Researchers identify the botanical remains from the cesspits as remnants from food that was consumed.

From the finds in both types of pits, we can learn much about commerce and diet in Jerusalem. As noted above, among the organic remnants buried in the pits, the main findings were from plant sources. Oriya Amichay in her masters thesis work, written under the direction of Prof. Ehud Weiss of Bar Ilan University, identified 38 kinds of plants: grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, spices, edible wild plants, and plants that were used for various industrial purposes. Among the fruits identified were the Syrian pear, Christ’s Thorn jujube, fig, blackberry, date palm, melon, apple and of course, grapes, used to prepare wine or grape syrup - “dibis” (grape juice whose use increased after the Moslem conquest and the Islamic prohibition against consumption of alcohol). Among the vegetables found were fennel, Armenian cucumber (also known as Arabian cucumber), radish, cilantro, black caraway and - eggplant.

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Like other foods - for example bananas - researchers propose that the eggplant, which apparently originated in India, “arrived” in Israel with the Arab conquest.  Until the discovery of the seeds in the Givati Parking Lot, there was no physical evidence for eggplant in Israel during, or prior to, the Early Moslem Period; therefore, their discovery in the cisterns of the Abbasid market expresses the first and earliest testament to eggplants in Israel.  Finding the seeds of the eggplant, according to researchers, signals not only the species’ introduction to Israel and its entrenchment in local agriculture, but also the influence of the Moslem conquest, expressed in political and administrative changes and also in changes to the local population’s culinary habits and the new ingredients brought to Israel and the West.  Thus, finding eggplant seeds improves our knowledge of the development of trade connections between the Land of Israel and the continent of Asia as a result of the Arab conquest.

 

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One famous eggplant dish from the Abbasid period is Buraniat (بورانيات),, named after Buran (b. 884), consort of the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun, who was famous for her eggplant dishes.  The recipe for Buraniat is found in the Annals from the Caliphs’ Kitchens (كتاب الطبيخ ),  the earliest Arab cookbook we have, written in Baghdad during the Abbasid period around the year 940 by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq (إبن سيّار الورّاق).  The recipe reads:

“Choose a small eggplant, pierce it with a knife, remove the insides and place them in salted water.  In a small pot, add olive oil and sesame oil, and fry the eggplant until cooked.  Sprinkle it with a little murri [fermented sauce made from wheat, which apparently is similar in taste to soy sauce], black pepper, and caraway seeds.  Chop a few rue leaves on top of the dish and serve it, thanks be to Allah.”

(Ibn-Saiyār al-Warrāq, al-Muẓaffar Ibn-Naṣr, and Nawal Nasrallah. Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens: Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq’s Tenth-Century Baghdadi Cookbook, 227)

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From a culinary perspective, it seems that eggplant was a popular dish in the Arab kitchen in the Middle Ages and merited a place of honor at the tables of the caliphs. From a medicinal perspective, however, the plant was thought to be especially problematic. During the Middle Ages - and even in ancient times - food and medicine complimented each other. 

According to Greek medicinal theories which were wide-spread in the Mediterranean region during the Middle Ages, a man’s body paralleled nature and consisted of 4 elements (fire, water, earth, and air)  expressed through 4 humors in a person’s  body:  black, yellow, white and red.  Each ingredient in food had an effect on the human body, and was classified according to its qualities:  hot, cold, wet and dry.  In order to be healthy, a person needed to balance between the 4 humors.  Diet, therefore, served an integral role in maintaining a person’s health.  In light of this understanding combining diet and medicine, in Annals from the Caliphs’ Kitchens the editor also considers the medicinal role of the ingredients:  eggplant is classified as cold and especially dry and eating it creates black humors in the body which can cause blisters in the mouth.  Eating fresh eggplant was thought to be particularly bad (and between us, it is easy to understand why). 

In order to avoid the creation of the black humor, the editor recommended cooking eggplant in vinegar, an act which lessens its negative influences.  Also roasting and frying are thought to be techniques which slightly improve the eggplant’s qualities; and therefore, the cookbook includes many recipes for preparing eggplant using these methods, as is the case in preparing Buraniat.

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Back to the Land of Israel.  In the 14th century, Rabbi Ishtori wrote about eggplant: “In our case, the edible fruit which is much consumed in the Land of Israel and in Spain and is called “al-badhnjan” and in French “aubergine”…” (Kaftor vaFerach, 56).  Without going into the halachic issues that Ishtori discusses after mentioning the eggplant, it appears that in the Mameluke Period, eggplant was popularly used in the Spanish kitchen (Andalusia), where Ishtori had his roots, and in the kitchens in the land of Israel where he arrived subsequently. Similar to Ishtori, in Arab sources until the 20th century, the plant is not known by the name “hatzil” - eggplant -  because that is its modern Hebrew name - but was called by its Arabic name - “badhnjan”, and by additional names which are actually various forms of the Arabic name  well-known throughout the Mediterranean basin.  In 19th century Jerusalem, with the renewal of Hebrew in the land of Israel, a decision was made to revise the name of the vegetable. 

In volume 2 of Kaftor vaFerach, the Story of Ishtori HaParchib, Abraham Moses Luncz writes:  “The name “badhnjan” is from the Arabic language and its meaning is “devil’s egg” because it is similar in looks to an egg (but much longer).  In Arabic it is also known by the name “haytzal” and therefore it is correct to call it in Hebrew by the name “hatz’l”.

 (From Kaftor vaFerach, volume 2, published by Abraham Moses Luncz, 1899, p. 833) 

Luncz, who was asked to suggest a Hebrew substitute for the Arabic name, initially thought about the possibility of translating the name of the plant to “Devil’s Egg”, from the folk etymology of the Arabic name based on the sounds of the name (with written mistakes): “bitz (eggs بيض  ) v’jahn (demons جانّ ).  And additionally, suggested that the shape of the eggplant is similar to an egg, an image that is in itself negative. Luncz then suggested the name “hatz’l” on the basis of an ancient name of the plant from the Arabic: ( حَيْصَل) “haytzal” which also means “crop”.  The name was accepted in dictionaries published at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1930, however, with the publishing of the complete dictionary of plants, the name of the plant was fixed as “hatzil”, from the same root but with a different accentuation (similar to the Arabic word “hatzila, whose meaning is also “produce”). The name change was accepted and used by all. 

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The common affection of the Jews of the land of Israel and Jews of Spain for the eggplant mentioned by Ishtori, continued into the 20th century, and the eggplant has a place of honor in the kitchens of Spanish Jews in the land of Israel. Rina Valero, a native of Jerusalem and daughter of one of the city’s prominent Sephardic families, wrote a cookbook, “Delights of Jerusalem” which is entirely dedicated to the food of Jerusalem. In the book, Rina publishes a

Sephardic Jewish recipe for eggplant in vinegar, under both the Spanish and Hebrew names of eggplant:

Berenjenas in Vinegar / Hatzilim in Vinegar

1 kg small eggplants

1 beet

1 head garlic

2 spicy peppers

Red wine vinegar

½ tsp salt per cup of vinegar

 

1. Boil the eggplant for a few minutes, remove from water and cool.

2. Score the eggplant along its length.

3. In a jar, place half of the sliced beet, the eggplants, the garlic (separated into cloves but not peeled), the spicy pepper, and on top the remaining beet.

4. Fill the jar with red wine vinegar mixed with salt (you can dilute it with a small amount of water if the vinegar is very concentrated), leave closed until the eggplants are done (about 3 days).

(from: Rina Valero, Delights of Jerusalem, 1985, p. 39)

Recall that according to medicine in the Middle Ages, one of the ways to minimize the damage from eating eggplant was to dip it in vinegar, and maybe this consideration led to preserving eggplant specifically in vinegar. Medical and nutritional ideas from the Abbasid period made their way into recipes that are in use until today.

Bon Appetit and, most importantly, to your health!

(translated by Leiah Jaffe)