Aubergines are delicious on the barbecue or cooked slowly in a vegetable curry or ratatouille.
Although the plump, pear-shaped variety, with its near-black shiny-skinned exterior, is probably the most familiar in Britain, aubergines come in a wide variety of shapes, colours and sizes. Italian cooks enjoy varieties with long fruit and striking lavender and cream streaks. Asian cultivars vary widely: some, such as the bitter-flavoured pea aubergine, are the size of a grape; the seed-filled, rounded Thai aubergine has green stripes and is used in curries; the beautifully long and slender pale-purple Japanese and Chinese varieties are ideal for stir-frying. The aubergine can also be ivory-coloured and ovoid, which almost certainly led people in some countries to name it the ‘eggplant’.
Aubergines can be bought all year round but they are at their best, not to mention cheapest, from July to September. Look for unblemished, firm, lustrous skin with a bright green calyx, or stem. Home-grown aubergines are available from April to October in the UK.
Aubergines store well in the fridge or a cool larder for about four to six days.
In the past, many recipes recommended salting aubergines to reduce their bitter flavour. This isn't really necessary now, although salting does make them absorb less oil when they’re fried. To prepare, wash the skin and trim off the stalk. Slice or cut the flesh into chunks just before cooking as it discolours quickly.
This humble plant has played a major part in many popular regional cuisines throughout the world - in French ratatouille, say, or roasted and whipped into baba ganoush in traditional Levantine style. The slightly bland flavour of the aubergine makes it the perfect blank slate to which rich and aromatic spices and herbs can be added: slick with miso and grill, or stew gently with stock, chilli bean paste and Shaoxing wine for a classic Chinese dish with minced pork. In India, Iran and Afghanistan, aubergines are made into hot, spicy pickles to whet the appetite.