Aubergine, baighan, baklazhan, berenjena, brinjal, eggplant, garden squash, melanzana or melongene. White, bright pink, green or vibrant dark purple. Small and round, long and thin or long and cylindrical. It may be known by many names worldwide, grown in many colours, shapes and sizes but in Trinidad, the smell of a roasted eggplant known locally as baighan choka can never be mistaken.
The eggplant; a cousin of the tomato and potato; all members of the plant family Solanaceae, may have begun as a small, rounded wild species in North Africa and the Middle East, then spread to Southern China and India where it was cultivated as a crop and eventually gained its fairly large and oblong shape. It was spread by the Arabs during their conquest of the Mediterranean in the 7th Century, to Spain by the 13th Century and then to England in the 16th Century. The eggplant was introduced to the Caribbean and New World countries (e.g. America) through the mass migration of Europeans and the establishment of their crops in these regions. And just in case you were wondering why it was called eggplant – the small, rounded version of the vegetable which looks like an egg is the reason for this name.
Besides the obvious tasty fare of roasted eggplant with garlic, onions and pepper in Trinidad and Tobago, the eggplant has been modified worldwide into equally delicious dishes. There is ratatouille (pronounced ra-ta-too-ee) in France, moussaka in Greece and Middle Eastern countries, baba ghanoush found in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria, an eggplant dish resembling our local baigan choka. Imam bayildi in Turkey (translated literally as “the imam swooned” or “the imam was exhilarated”), a dish of a whole eggplant stuffed with garlic, onions and tomatoes. And the list goes on and on.
While differing in methods of preparation, what never changes is how nutritionally beneficial the eggplant is as a food source. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the following nutrients and their percentages seen in the table below can be found in 100 grams of raw eggplant (a little more than a cup).
Manganese, magnesium and vitamin K aid in bone building. Potassium and copper help with heart health. Vitamin C aids in immunity against infections like the common cold. Vitamin B6 helps maintain antibody formation and healthy brain, nerve, and red blood cells.
In addition to containing many vitamins and minerals, important phytonutrients are present within the eggplant. Phyto is the Greek word for plant, so phytonutrients are the chemical compounds which occur naturally in plants and may help prevent disease and fortify the human body. Phytonutrients like caffeic acid, chlorogenic acid, and nasunin are found in the skin and flesh of the eggplant. These also have antioxidant effects on the body. Antioxidants are vitamins, minerals and other nutrients which guard and repair body cells from damage by dangerous unstable molecules called free radicals.
Caffeic acid (unrelated to coffee) is an antioxidant compound found in all plants. It can be converted to shikimic acid which is used by the pharmaceutical industry to produce anti-flu drugs. Caffeic acid in the eggplant is converted to chlorogenic acid which is an antioxidant, anti-cancer, anti-LDL (low density lipids AKA bad cholesterol) and anti-viral agent. One review article also identifies it as anti-hypertensive (pressure reducing).
Nasunin is found in the skin of the eggplant and is what gives it its dark purplish colour. It is a powerful antioxidant and helps combat damage from free radicals thereby protecting brain cells, nervous system cells and reducing damage in joints. It is anti-angiogenic (stops the growth of new blood vessels) meaning that it can help fight cancer by stopping the blood supply to tumours. It should be noted that because it is anti-angiogenic, nasunin may not be safe for pregnant women since it may limit the growth of the fetus. Consult with your doctor about this.
One last fact
Eggplant absorbs more oil than any other vegetable (hello, frying!). A healthier method is grilling or baking. But if you absolutely must fry it (you fried food lovers!) slice the eggplant and sprinkle on some salt. This softens its flesh, decreases its natural bitterness and most importantly draws out the water from its flesh (also known as ‘sweating’) which will reduce the absorption of oil when cooking.
Altogether dear readers, I bet you never thought a tasty serving of baighan choka could be bursting with so many benefits!