The title should really be “The Exceptional Eggplants”—plural. That’s because there are nearly 400 varieties, including Japanese, Italian, Indian, and Thai iterations and, at The Chef’s Garden, we’ve tested more than 100 of them! Why? To bring you the varieties that burst with flavor and nutrition with a pleasing texture and eye-catching hue, growing the ones you love the most.
Fresh eggplant is incredibly versatile with the ability to star as the centerpiece of a delicious dish or to serve as a flavorful component of one. It pairs well with proteins and seafoods and responds well to baking, broiling, roasting, sautéing, grilling, stir frying and more.
Story Behind the Story: 600+ Miles to Get 100+ Eggplant Varieties
In Decorah, Iowa—more than 600 miles from our Huron, Ohio farm, one way—Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy manage the Seed Savers Exchange as a “network of gardeners interested in preserving heirloom varieties and sharing seeds.”
They’d initially founded it in Missouri when Diane’s grandfather gave them two different seed varieties—Grandpa Ott’s morning glory and the German pink tomato—that the family had brought over from Bavaria in 1884, recognizing the value of preserving these heirloom varieties. Today, there are about 13,000 members in the exchange, each of whom share this passion for preservation.
Preservation of heirloom seeds is crucial, Farmer Lee shares, because once a particular vegetable seed is gone, it’s gone for good—with thousands of vegetable varieties already extinct. The pace of extinction began to accelerate even more quickly over recent decades when large seed companies began to buy up small family-owned ones. The large companies look at their acquisition as an economic move and so many only maintain the top sellers and ditch the rest.
“Let’s say that a big seed company will only sell the top five products from each of the small family owned companies that they buy up,” Farmer Lee says. “The rest of these seeds can go by the wayside and we may lose their incredible flavor and unique characteristics forever.”
With that context in mind, we’ll share a story about Bob Jones, Sr. and his trip to Iowa, one that took place about three decades ago.
When he arrived at an annual event held at the Seed Savers Exchange, hundreds of people were asking and answering questions. Some were exchange members and all of them were almost certainly people who truly cared about seeds, about soil, and about growing great tasting vegetables naturally.
Bob, Sr. described this visit as one that felt like returning to the 1960s, to a hippie-type gathering of folks who enjoyed life, loved the soil, and worried about losing flavorful vegetables. A few days later, Bob, Sr. headed back home with his mind full of ideas about growing dozens of different eggplant varieties. He brought home some seed varieties and had other varieties shipped to him for a total of one hundred eggplant varieties.
Next up: planting them, taste-testing them, and getting chef feedback. “We asked chefs which ones had the best flavor, shape, hue, and so forth,” Farmer Lee explains. “Which ones, we asked them, have unusual characteristics that shouldn’t be lost? Which ones deserve to continue to be grown?”
The ones that please our chefs continue to be grown at The Chef’s Garden.
Fresh Eggplant and Storytelling
“The story behind items on the menu, as well as the restaurant itself, can be an important part of connecting with potential customers and bringing repeat business back.” (Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts)
Besides sharing stories about your unique restaurant and about the preparation of your dishes, you can also share stories about the ingredients used and how you sourced them. For example, fresh eggplant from The Chef’s Garden has been regeneratively farmed with love for the maximum of flavor and nutrition. In fact, independent testing has shown how we are growing flavorful, farm-fresh vegetables with 300 to 600 percent more in nutrients than the USDA baseline. This, all by itself, makes for a great story for the increasing number of people who want to eat healthy foods that taste great.
You could also talk about regenerative farming, which is at the heart and soul of everything we do. We use cover crops and other special techniques to leave our soil in healthier shape than when we started—and then we grow our vegetables slowly and gently in full accord with nature in this marvelously healthy soil.
Healthy soil. Healthy crops. Healthy people. Healthy planet.
We’ve also tapped into Google search data to help you find questions that your diners will likely have about eggplant—and that you can answer through your storytelling. For example, a hefty 9,900 people ask, each and every month, the following question: “Is eggplant a fruit?” So, as part of your storytelling, you can share how, because fruits develop from the ovary of a flowering plant—and that’s the growing process for an eggplant—then, yes. Eggplant is a fruit, one that chefs typically treat like a vegetable when applying culinary techniques.
What does eggplant taste like?
As we learned by growing and taste testing 100 different varieties of eggplant, each type has a slightly different flavor, deliciously nuanced. Overall, the flavor can be compared to summer squash or zucchini: mild, sweet, and tender with a slight touch of vegetal bitterness.
If you’re look for a variety without the bitterness, the fairytale eggplant is deliciously sweet and the Hansel eggplant is wonderfully tender. If you have a specific flavor or texture that you’re seeking for your dishes, just talk to your product specialist today. Or to benefit from a range of flavors, choose mixed eggplant.
Is eggplant good for you?
Health benefits of eggplant are bountiful, including the following:
They are nutrient rich, offering up plenty of vitamins, minerals, and fiber with a small number of calories. They’re also high in antioxidants.
They may help to reduce the risk of heart disease and to manage blood sugar levels.
They may have cancer fighting properties.
MedicalNewsToday.com shares how eating eggplant may help to manage cholesterol and assist with eye health. Some studies show that it may play a role in boosting brain health.
History of Eggplant
Eggplant probably originated in India where it still runs wild and where it’s been cultivated for more than 1,500 years. It’s also been grown for around that long in China, too. According to one site by the University of Arizona, a Chinese woman needed to know at least a dozen eggplant recipes by her wedding day.
As people established increasing numbers of trade routes, Arabian sailors and merchants introduced the eggplant to Europeans while Persians took this produce to Africa. By the 1800s, the Spanish had transported eggplant to North America.
Diners may appreciate some info about eggplant’s history once it arrived to the New World, including these fun facts:
President Thomas Jefferson was growing eggplant in his garden as far back as 1812.
In 1824, one of Jefferson’s relatives—Mary Randolph—published a cookbook (The Virginia House-Wife) with an “Egg Plant” recipe. Her advice? “Get them young and fresh.” Also note that, instead of “yolk,” she says “yelk.”
In 1825, seed companies in the United States were listing white eggplant and purple eggplant seeds, although the white variety was considered largely ornamental.
In Europe, eggplants were once called “mad apples”—and this fruit is related, naturally enough, to tomatoes (“love apples”).
Traditionally, people enjoy purple eggplant that’s baked with parmesan as a delicious comfort food—and there are plenty of creative riffs to experiment with on that dish alone. Plus, here are three more eggplant recipes to enjoy:
Sesame Cilantro Chili Eggplant, a recipe by Chef Jehangir Mehta
Easy Ratatouille Recipe by Chef Jamie Simpson
Farmer Lee’s Famous ELT Sandwich (by, you guessed it, Farmer Lee Jones!)
Plus, here is a marvelous charred application of eggplant that we enjoyed when Chef Paul Liebrandt visited the Culinary Vegetable Institute as an artist in residence. The result is ideal for use in ice creams and custards:
Your use of fresh eggplant is limited only by your creativity—and, over the years, we continue to admire and be amazed about the unlimited amounts of culinary innovation that our chefs display!
Any time that you use farm-fresh vegetables from The Chef’s Garden in your dishes and menus, you could share this story about our farm. The growth of the produce being enjoyed all started on a real Ohio farm along the shores of Lake Erie inside an unassuming greenhouse where every eggplant, tomatoes, pepper, and more began as a single seed pressed gently into the soil by a real person with a real name—someone dedicated to their work at The Chef’s Garden, a place committed to growing the vegetables our chefs need, according to the values they uphold.
The Chef’s Garden’s Book
For more stories from Farmer Lee Jones and his family that you can enjoy and share with your diners, recipes from Chef Jamie Simpson from the Culinary Vegetable Institute, and much more, we invite you to order The Chef's Garden: A Modern Guide to Common and Unusual Vegetables—with Recipes. We sure hope you like it!