Eggplant, aubergine, has been around the Mediterranean for more than 500 years. No wonder this luxurious vegetable of Indian origin became a staple of Sicilian cooking. In a land too dry and warm to support large-scale cattle breeding, meat was an expensive rarity. Peasants in Southern Italy lived on a basic diet of olive oil, pasta, cheese and vegetables, occasionally fish. Eggplant, enriched by cooking in oil, must have been a welcome addition to their simple dishes.
Later in history some unknown gastronomic hero conceived the heavenly combination of tomato and eggplants. Fried eggplants are still used for a number of spectacular – and virtually vegetarian – dishes like eggplant parmigiana, caponata, pasta incasciata.
In my memory, the aroma of fried eggplants permeates images of luminous Sicilian summers. Memories of green shutters closed against the heat. Tiny whitewashed alleys where you don’t see anybody but someone is cooking something magical somewhere. Memories of fragrant spaghetti with the sweetest tomato sauce piled high with slabs of golden aubergines and a sprinkle of baked ricotta, pasta alla Norma.
Yes, you can use grilled eggplants instead of fried, I know. But for a real bite of Sicily, please just try, even if only once. Fry and be happy.