Sex And The Eggplant

Ever wonder why an eggplant is called an eggplant?  Me neither. Until the other day I was at the market and the eggplant farmer was holding up a white eggplant to a customer saying, “… and so this is why they called them egg plants.”  And sure enough, it looked just like an egg – a sort of elongated, slightly crooked ostrich egg, with some bruises and dents, but definitely an egg.

I am drawn far more to foods (both ingredients and dishes) that are imperfect than perfect. I was “schooled” in the Second City improv school of cooking and find it far more stressful to be given a script/recipe and told to follow it exactly as the writer wrote it, than to be given a line such as “make something with this asymetrical, twin eggplant”, and then see what happens.  I like to discover what the other actors (ingredients) will bring to the stage, and then adapt as the story emerges.  This sometimes leads to greatness, other times to failure, but I’ve never had an audience (read: friends who came to dinner) leave during intermission.

But back to the white eggplant…it’s actually considered a milder/less bitter “fruit” (which it is) than the common purple eggplant. But it’s rare to find because over the past century as they were transported and sold at greater distances, their downy white skin showed bang marks easily and buyers did not like the look of imperfection. So the purple ones took over and now they’re all we see. (Though some farmer’s markets still sell the white ones.)

Why I’m called an eggplant.

And if you can’t find white ones, the other way to get a milder eggplant is to go for the smaller purple ones since it’s the seeds that lend the bitterness and the smaller eggplants have less mature seeds.

There are some that believe that the other way to get a milder fruit is to choose the “boy” eggplant over the “girl”. The belief being that boys have fewer seeds. The way they say to tell male from female, is to pick it up and look underneath. At the bottom of the eggplant there is an indented, rough path.  If it’s round it’s a male, if elongated it’s female.

But biology doesn’t seem to support the eggplant sex theory. Like many plants, they’re basically self-pollinating hermaphrodites and don’t need to have sex with a fellow eggplant to make baby eggplants. It’s a DIY process.

Some claim that the female (left) is more bitter than the male (right). 

What I did with the bi-gendered eggplants when I brought them home was make this…

Get the recipe for “Eggplant Sicilian-Style”, here. 

An interesting nutritional fact about eggplant: eggplants have trace (very trace!) amounts of nicotine – in fact more than any other edible plant. However you need to eat 20 lbs of eggplant to get the same amount of nicotine as you would in one cigarette. (How great would it be if teens starting thinking it was cool to eat eggplant …)

Oh and that gorgeous photo at the very top – I didn’t take it.  Donna did.  She wrote me the other day, saying, “We picked this in our garden! Feel free to use the photo.”  So a million thanks Donna for this stunning portrait of imperfection.

Any eggplant tips or recipes to share?  Or your views on “perfect imperfection” when it comes to cooking?

Related Posts

“January Lentil Stew” (Which does not mean you can’t cook it in Sept): A dish where you can use eggplant.
Roasted Carrots: Another example of imperfection at its best.

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  • Three-Cookies

    Very interesting, I didn’t know there were male and female eggplants, and that females (in the eggplant world) are more bitter than the male

    • Michelle Madden

      Well, as some believe … though I personally find a more predictable way to choose a less bitter eggplant, is to go with the smaller sizes…

    • Anonymous

      There are not. As Michelle stated above, this is a ‘belief’ of some misguided or misinformed folks. Eggplant flowers are  perfect – meaning they contain both male & female parts & pollinate themselves. All fruits, by definition, are female, since a fruit is basically a plant’s ovary – that’s why fruits contain seeds. The bitterness is related to the variety/cultivar & maturity of the fruits.

      1 of my fave dishes is eggplant parmigiana from Molly Katzen’s  Moosewood cookbook. It calls for baking the breaded slices, rather than frying.

       & yes, I too seem to resist following almost any recipe to the letter…

      • jmacncheese

        Thank you for your answer, ct! I knew this was incorrect but wasn’t sure why (see my original query below about sexing squash flowers). I’ve made the same Moosewood recipe, with alterations, I’m sure.

  • MommyLisa

    I tried to puree eggplant for my baby when feeding solids, it turned to glue.  😛

    • Michelle Madden

      Good to know for future reference!  Eggplant def has a very meaty texture, which is why it makes such a nice babaganoush, but perhaps just crushing with a fork would work better than pureeing?

      • MommyLisa

        Yes, I only tried to make it by puree once and my daughter was probably 10 months old at the time – she has had eggplant and squash since.  😉 She is after all five now. 

  • Bt52refster

    tonight I am making moussaka with an eggplant my son grew, I will spice the meat sauce layer with cinnamon and allspice and perhaps we will believe the beef is lamb!

  • Dinosaur Dry Goods

    I have 3 plants in the garden that have produced bushels of eggplant this summer (much to my surprise). I’ve been slicing and roasting on and olive-oily baking sheet and throwing them in the freezer. In the winter, I’ll haul some out for a quick hot sandwich with sauce and cheese. Or I’ll throw some in soup.

    • Michelle Madden

      Have you ever tried to freeze un-cooked eggplant and then use it for say, soup?  Wondering if fresh or cooked freezes (and thaws) better…

  • jmacncheese

    I grew eggplant and peppers for the first time this year to great success. They never make it to the freezer but I’ve been making gobs of ratatouille! I couldn’t get enough of a great eggplant dish in Istanbul – it was creamy and white and addictive. I haven’t been able to replicate it at home. Anyone?

    Re sex: When using the flowers from squash plants, it is suggested that one pick the male flowers because they DON’T produce fruit. How to tell the difference? The males open early in the day then close when the female flowers open so that they can be pollinated by the bees that visited earlier (I love nature! She’s so clever!) So I actually wonder if nightshades are similar to squash, having male flowers that actually don’t bear fruit?

    • Foody

      eggplant salad (patlican salatisi in turkish) might be what you’re looking for

  • 6512 and growing

    I thought for sure that top photo was some trick of photoshop. So cool!
    I am on an eggplant binge this summer. I buy the long, Japanese ones from my farmers market and roast those suckers with coconut oil and garlic and onions. Sometimes I blend the roasted eggplant into dips with lime juice, olive oil and basil, other times, I toss them into pasta/rice or some other grain. They are sort of a sexy vegetable, somehow.

  • Vicki Bensinger

    Those are great facts I didn’t know.  I love that photo at the top, it looks just like a heart but then I didn’t have to tell you that.  Fun post and great recipe.  Thanks for sharing.

  • Ann

    I love eggplant and can’t wait to look at your Sicilian eggplant recipe!  I just purchased some light FAT lavender eggplants and I can’t wait to see what they become!  I completely agree with your theory.  Perfection is nice, but it’s the differences that make things wonderful!

  • Nicci

    Very informative Michelle, thanks again. Will never look at (and chose) an eggplant the same way …

  • Janel

    I’m cracking up at the thought of a marketing campaign to get teens “addicted” to eggplants. Just stir fried some baby white eggplants last night and love how I didn’t have to let the bitter moisture sweat out before cooking.

  • Lauren C.

    Love the background on eggplants!  And I totally agree with your “perfect imperfection” theory.  My family always looks for the most imperfect pumpkin when we’re selecting one for Halloween — the more weird bumps and warts, the better!  (Although it’s not technically a cooking comment, at least it’s somewhat timely! :) )

    • Michelle Madden

      Timely indeed! There is something in particular about pumpkins that kind of begs you to look for the weird!

  • Kathleen

    Awesome recipe! We made it last night with fresh farmer’s market eggplant, garlic, tomatoes, onions and were thrilled with the taste. It got a A+++. Yes, I grade the recipes. When I die please make sure no one throws out all my cookbooks and other recipes with lots of notes and grades in them!

    • Michelle Madden

      Oh I’m so happy to hear this !!! I’ll never post a recipe that I don’t personally love but it’s such a thrill to hear that others love my crazy concoctions as much as I do! Thx for the report card!

  • Michele

    I love eggplant! It’s great in vegetarian lasagna – slice it about 1/4 inch thick and layer it a few times, and it will give the dish a hearty, meaty texture. When I make it I like to use ricotta cheese, eggplant, spinach and zucchini, but it’s a totally alterable dish :)

  • Katherine Martinelli

    So interesting! I definitely have not seen too many white eggplants. The eggplant in your first photo that’s an unusual shape – here in Israel we call them “baladi” eggplants, which means that they grow wild. They supposedly taste better. And my great aunt who made the best eggplant parmesan swore by the male/female rule! This dish looks fabulous.

  • Ibe

    there is no such thing as a sex of an egg plant, which is a fruit btw. They all come from a flower that has both male and female parts. Stigma and stamen. They are self pollinating (have both parts in one flower unlike a squash that has male and female flowers where the squash come from the female only. Amount and size of seeds come.has to do with age and complete or incomplete pollination.

  • Chris

    I have been on a quest trying to learn about eggplants because sometimes they have so many seeds and they are very bitter and sometimes they have few seeds and aren’t bitter but it is confusing. I’ve read so much different info about how to get an eggplant that doesn’t have a lot of seeds and isn’t bitter. I thought I found the answer when I learned that eggplants can be male and female and learned how to figure out the difference then I just came upon your info saying it isn’t true. What I’m thinking now from what I read here is that it is the size and variety of the eggplant which determines how bitter it may be. Can anyone tell me what exact varieties I should buy and what size to buy of those varieties? Their is o much different info out there. I would really appreciate any help from you guys. txs so much :)

  • Mergatroyd

    ‘Male’ and
    Female’ is a misnomer: eggplant is a fruit, and does not have gender. It is a matter of maturity as to how many seeds are in the eggplant, not gender.