The eggplant has long been a staple of cuisines throughout the world. Chefs from the Mediterranean to the Middle East and on to East Asia have used this mildly flavored vegetable in a wide variety of popular dishes. Today the eggplant is getting attention for its nutritional benefits and its use as a low calorie substitute for meat.
While technically a fruit, eggplants are largely considered a vegetable in culinary circles. The plant is a member of the nightshade family, making it a close cousin of the tomato and the potato. When choosing an eggplant, seek out a fruit that feels firm and heavy to the touch. The skin should be smooth and free of bumps, bruises and tan patches. Choose a small to medium sized eggplant if you prefer a sweeter taste and tender flesh. Larger eggplants tend to be tough with a slightly bitter flavor.
Eggplants are naturally low in calories, making them an excellent choice for anyone looking to lose weight. One cup of cooked eggplant contains just 28 calories and 0.2 grams of fat. Eggplant is also a good source of dietary fiber, with 2.5 grams per serving. Fiber helps to regulate blood sugar and keeps cholesterol levels low. In addition, eggplant contains a host of potent antioxidants. A University of California at Berkeley study, released in the August 7, 2000 issue of Toxicology, found that an antioxidant called nasunin, found in eggplant skin, protects cells from free radical damage. Another antioxidant, chlorogenic acid, is believed to have anti-cancer properties.
Eggplants are found in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. The American (globe) eggplant is the large, pear-shaped, dark purple eggplant that is often seen in grocery stores. The Italian eggplant is similar to the American variety, albeit slightly smaller. Japanese eggplants are cylindrical in shape and come in colors ranging from light pink to deep purple. They have thin skins and a sweeter flavor than the American and Italian varieties. White eggplants impart a mild flavor and have a firm, meaty texture.
This versatile vegetable can be used as a low-calorie substitute for meat in a variety of dishes. Many people are familiar with baked eggplant parmesan, but eggplant is also a welcome addition to meatless stir-fry and pasta dishes as well as soups and stews. Grilled eggplant burgers make a delicious alternative to traditional hamburgers. Marinated and sliced thick, these burgers are then topped with cheese, tomato and onions; they may be served with or without a bun. Eggplant is relatively low in protein. When used as a meat substitute, it is important to include a source of protein with the meal--such as cheese, beans or lentils.
Eggplant contains measurable amounts of oxalates, an organic acid that can be harmful to those with kidney or gallbladder problems. People with a history of kidney stones or gallstones may wish to avoid eggplant and other oxalate-rich foods like spinach and beet greens.