Bravo For Brinjals
The eggplant, aubergine, or brinjal is something of an acquired taste. If you like that slight bitterness, then it opens up a culinary world that includes India, the Mediterranean countries and even classical French cuisine. In South Africa we commonly use the term ‘brinjal’ for this fruiting vegetable that is native to India and Sri Lanka. In North America, as well as Australia and New Zealand, it is referred to as ‘eggplant’, because some early cultivars had white, egg-shaped fruit. The English use ‘aubergine’, which developed from the
French word with the same spelling. In Italy it is called melanzana, which comes from the Latin mala insana, mad apple, because it was associated with madness and leprosy. It has many more names, which just goes to show how widely it is cultivated. In South Africa it is a long summer crop, taking about four months from seedling to first harvest. In the vegetable garden it grows up to 1.5m high and can produce up to 10 fruits per bush, so a family of four needs only one or two bushes. There are also miniature varieties that are excellent for growing in pots.
Soil and position Brinjals need fertile, free-draining soil so preparation should include generous amounts of compost and some organic fertiliser. Plant your brinjals in full sun or morning sun in very hot areas.
If sown from seed, the soil must not dry out at any stage during germination. If you only want a few brinjals it is probably better to buy young plants from the garden centre. Young plants should be spaced about half a metre apart and should be set slightly deeper than they were in the seedling tray or pot. Make a dam around the young plant so that it can be flood watered. Brinjals, especially miniature varieties, also grow well in pots of at least 50cm in diameter. Pinch out the growing tips to produce a bushy plant.
Oregano and marjoram, thyme, basil, winter savory and rosemary are good companion herbs for brinjals. I believe in the philosophy that good companions in the pot are also good companions in the garden. In cooking, oregano is the herb that best complements the peppery taste of brinjals. Oregano has dark green, oval leaves carried on sturdy green stems. The pungent, aromatic flavour is very distinctive. The leaves usually have a higher proportion of thymol than marjoram, giving it a stronger thyme-like scent. The bush itself is hardy
and robust, growing strongly to about 60cm high.
Plants need to be well watered, because the leaves are large and transpire a lot. The leaves develop brown edges if there is not enough water. Watering is particularly important when the plant is in flower because if it wilts it tends to drop its flowers, which means no fruit. A thick layer of mulch (10cm) around the plant will help, especially when it is very hot.
It is not necessary to fertilise until the plant starts to flower. A liquid feed or side dressing with a granular fertiliser can be given every two weeks.
Pests and diseases:
The only pest that really causes problems is red spider mite, which occurs during very hot and dry periods. You can spray preventively with an organic insecticide – spray underneath the leaves where the mite occurs.
Plants, especially those that are a bit spindly, should be staked so that they don’t break when the fruit starts forming. The fruit can be removed when it is about 7 – 10cm in diameter. To test for ripeness, gently press the skin with the pad of your thumb. If it springs back, the fruit is ripe; if an indentation remains it is not. Remove the fruit regularly to encourage more fruit, cutting it from the plant with kitchen scissors or secateurs. The fruit deteriorates quickly, which makes this plant a ‘must’ in the vegetable garden if you want really fresh brinjals for the table.
Cooking with brinjals:
Brinjals are rich in calcium, magnesium, potassium and phosphorous, along with fibre, which is mainly in the skin. They contain very little fat, protein or carbohydrate and so are regarded as an ideal diet vegetable, although they do soak up oil during cooking. You can salt brinjals before cooking, to reduce their ability to absorb oil, although new varieties don’t need this. To cook, slice and toss in olive oil and fry in a dry pan. For something a little different, try this preserved, bottled brinjal recipe!
Not all brinjals are glossy and black. For adventurous gardeners there are new, exotic-coloured varieties to try, but with the same, delicious brinjal flavour.
Did you know that in Asia and other parts of Africa brinjals are a staple food? Because they absorb existing flavours when added to stew, they are used to make a meal go further, especially when meat is scarce.
Another interesting fact is that not all brinjals are glossy and black. They can also be round and yellow, long and pale green or light purple, white with a pink blush, and even golden. The only constant is the flavour; a brinjal always tastes like a brinjal! What sets varieties apart is their yield, disease resistance and whether they are early or late producers. Asian brinjals, almost without exception, are the most abundant producers, yielding at least twice as much as the varieties that we know, like ‘Black Beauty Imperial’, also an heirloom variety. LivingSeeds has been collecting the seed, trial-growing different varieties at their Henley-on-Klip farm and now have 11 different brinjal varieties, including some of our more familiar burgundy-black skinned varieties.
The best of Asia
‘Kamo’ is a traditional brinjal from the Kamo region of Japan where it has been grown for hundreds of years. The flesh is tender, not too dense and is slightly sweeter in taste. It’s a huge producer.
‘Thai Long Green’ is a traditional variety with a mild flavour and thin skin, so it does not need to be peeled. It’s an excessive producer. When it starts turning yellow it is over ripe.
‘Ping Tung’ is a Korean brinjal with glossy fruit that easily takes on the flavour of other food. It’s used in ratatouille, soup and stews. The plant is a prolific producer and is very disease resistant.
‘Thai White Ribbed’ looks more like a white tomato and the flavour surpasses other brinjals. The fruit is not very large, about 7-8 cm in diameter. It works well in stir fries.
‘Amarilla Lunga’ is a beautiful golden orange brinjal with a mild flavour. It’s a good early producer, requiring 80-90 days to harvest.
‘Listada de Gandia’ originates from Spain but has become very popular in Italy and France. It is a beautiful fruit, and the flavour is mild, without any bitterness. It is one of the longer season varieties, needing at least 100 days to harvest. Pick it before the fruit loses its gloss.
‘Rotundo Rosa’ is an early producing plant (85-90 days to harvest). Its white fruit has a pink blush that is very large and very tasty. It likes warmer climates and will not do well in the eastern Free State and similar cold regions. Novelty
‘Mini Purple Oblong’ produces tiny fruits and is not a heavy producer. Five or six bushes are needed to produce a double handful of fruit. It has a nice flavour but can get bitter. Cut fruits in half when adding to a stew.
‘Imperial Black Beauty’ is an heirloom variety from the 1920s that put brinjals on the map. It has the taste that everyone knows. It can be bitter if over-ripe. It is a good but not exceptional producer.
‘Diamond’ is a variety from the Ukraine with a distinctive banana shape. It tolerates cooler weather and produces fruit to the very end of the season.