Eggplant is an acquired taste for many people. I suspect this is because eggplants in stores are great big things that tend to be bitter, even when well-salted. The oriental eggplants have a much more delicate flavor. The original globe eggplant varieties had sharp spines on the plant calyxes as well as the stems. They tended to be both bitter and tough, so stewing was the usual way to cook them.
This vegetable has been tinkered with by many cultures, so it comes in green, white, orange, purple and streaked versions, and varies in size and shape from small eggs to big globes, with a few long cylindrical versions in the middle. The name comes from the shape of the very earliest varieties, as they were about the size and shape of an egg. It was grown in England in the 16th century as the Old White Egg. There’s a black version, called, of course, Black Egg. Manchuria is a green egg-shaped variety, collected from China in the 1930s. Unlike their larger cousins, these eggplants will readily cross with each other. This is another indigenous Indian plant. The Chinese started domesticating eggplant’s ancestors about 500 B.C. It was supposedly domesticated from the poisonous wild nightshade, which makes you wonder how many taste testers they lost in the process. Once domesticated, it rambled through Africa into Italy before moving into Greece, Turkey and France, where it’s called aubergine. Although you can freeze eggplant, it’s not safe for canning, because it’s so dense that it may not cook through. Frozen eggplant isn’t worth the effort, as far as I’m concerned (although cooked ratatouille freezes OK for up to two months), so I plant enough to eat fresh; we get our eggplant fix in the summer and then wait until next year. It’s great grilled, so it’s nice that barbeque season and eggplant season overlap. Lots of nutritional goodies in eggplant: vitamins B6, C, K, thiamin, niacin, vitamin b6, pantothenic acid, magnesium, phosphorus and copper, plus plenty of fiber, folate, potassium and manganese.
- Pingtung Long – highly productive eggplant that should be staked, as the weight of the fruits will pull it over. It’s from Taiwan, disease resistant and thin-skinned. Probably the best flavor of all the eggplants (I think) and very easy to slice and sauté or stir fry. This one and Long Purple don’t really grill very well (although you can broil them), but in my experience, they make better ratatouille than globe eggplants.
- Long Purple – first showed up in the B.K. Bliss and Son offerings in 1870, but it may have been around as early as 1855. It’s an Italian version of the long and skinny type of eggplant, not quite as slender as Pingtung Long, but similar in flavor. It also has fewer seeds than standard eggplants. Unfortunately, it also tends to have thorny calyxes and thorns on the stems, so watch your fingers.
- Rosa Bianca – this one is a beauty, rounded and streaked purple, pinkish-purple and white. It’s worth growing just as a table decoration, but it also tastes very good. The flavor is delicate and mild, no bitterness unless you short it on water. It’s an Italian variety.
- Black Beauty – this eggplant was a big hit because it was so much earlier than its competitors when it was introduced in 1902. It will also produce well in short-season areas. This is the typical old standard, with large purple fruits so dark they are almost black in color. The flavor is good if you harvest when it first ripens and eat it while it’s still really fresh. If it gets too big, it’s more likely to be bitter and tough. This one and Rosa Bianca are my choices for fried eggplant or eggplant Parmesan. Cucumber beetles really like this eggplant, to the point that some gardeners grow it just as a trap crop to keep the beetles away from their cucumbers and squash. Of all the eggplants I’ve grown, this is the slowest to germinate and ripen. While William Woys Weaver reports it produces more fruits than other large-fruited varieties, I haven’t found that to be true in my garden. It should be staked, as the heavy fruits will pull the plant over, especially if you have heavy rains. I grow it because my husband loves it as fried eggplant; otherwise I wouldn’t bother.
- Listada de Gandia – a beautiful eggplant, striped purple and white. The James Vick catalog listed it in 1872 at twice the cost of other eggplants in the catalog. Loves hot weather – thrives in the high nineties – but does need a long growing season. Expect 120 days from seed. Fruits are variable in size, shape and color. Make sure you harvest young or the skin will be tough.
If I could only have one eggplant, I would choose Long Purple. It germinates more readily and faster than globe eggplants like Black Beauty or Rosa Bianca. Since it’s smaller at maturity, it rarely gets tough or bitter. It’s very productive, starts to produce earlier and produces over a longer period than the globes. It tastes great, especially in ratatouille.