Eggplants in the 14th Century

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!

Eggplant from China
Eggplant/Aubergine from China

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.

Corn segregating 3:1 yellow:white from Zester
Corn segregating 3:1 yellow:white from Zester

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.

Genes in Evolution Cover
Genes in Evolution Cover

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.

Editor Pat Heslop-Harrison

Pat Heslop-Harrison is Professor of Molecular Cytogenetics and Cell Biology at the University of Leicester. He is also Chief Editor of Annals of Botany.


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