As I grew up, I also grew fond of eggplant. At first, I always associated this vegetable with ITALY and Italian cuisine, as it was in New York`s numerous Sicilian and Neopolitan style restaurants that I first learned to savor this vegetables unique texture and flavor, especially in the form of one of my all-time favorite dishes- eggplant parmegiana (which we New Yorkers pronounce as eggplant parme JOHN) .
Later, travelling in Europe and beyond, I discovered the culinary MAGIC worked with eggplant in such countries as Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. I also developed a strong liking for the smoky taste of BABAGANOUJ, the eggplant paste found in many Middle -Eastern countries.
Coming to Japan has even further deepened my enjoyment of the eggplant.Not only was I was happilly surprised to find them in shapes and sizes which I had previously never encountered – Not only did I discover that the Japanese had ways preparing them for eating which I would never have imagined ( i.e. salting or pickling)- but living out among the vegetable fields of Ibaraki has given me a chance to discover an entirely new aspect of the eggplant- its flower (HANA NASU), which, amazingly, like the skin of the eggplant itself, is a beatiful, though much more delicate purple.
The fact that there were so many major regional varieties of eggplant in Japan (at least 20), as well as the fact that there are several proverbs, folk beliefs and other customs connected with them suggested to me that they had a long history in Japan. In fact, I found that NASU (eggplant) IS one of the oldest of Japan`s important vegetables, as there are records of its presence in this country from at least the 8th century. One thing that surprised me was that the origin of the eggplant was not Southern-Europe, the Balkans, or even Asia Minor ( the places which I had always associated with it), – but India (only later was I to find how common eggplant and okra curry was in the subcontinent)! It was from there that it fanned out across the globe coming to Japan through separate routes (China, Korea and South-East Asia) where it became one of the representive crops (along with cucumbers and now corn and tomatoes) summer. One reasonable theory about the origin of the Japanese name NASU, is that it derives from NATSU, which means summer.
It is interesting to note that since eggplant, like rice, originated in tropical Asia and required similar weather conditions to grow well, Japanese farmers found that the condition of their NASU plants during summer could be indicators of the quality of the autumn rice harvest. This is reflected in numerous tradtional proverbs which I have found in Japanese.The most obvious of these is- NASU NO HOSAKU WA INE NO HOSAKU (茄子の豊作は稲の豊作), which translates as- a good eggplant crop means a good rice crop!
As I mentioned before, the Japanese have developed many ways of eating NASU. In the Heian Period (794-1185), there are records of nasu having been made into pickles. Since then, nasu have been grilled,boiled, fried, deep-fried with batter (tempura), etcetera, etcetera. Since nasu themselves are mostly (90 percent) water they absorb the nutrition and flavors they are prepared with. In Japan, one of the more delicious things to combine nasu with is MISO paste.
Among the MANY folk beliefs connected with nasu in Japan, and one which is still popular among natives of rural Ibaraki is that eggplants have a COOLING EFFECT on the body. This derives from traditonal Chinese thought which asserts that root vegetables such as ginger or radish WARM the body, and that vegetables which grow above ground (cucumbers, eggplants) are cooling. Even in this day and age it is not uncommon to hear it said in these parts that eggplants cool the body and should not be eaten by pregnant women.
Having heard this, you can now better understand what is probably the most famous (and most misinterpreted) eggplant related Japanese proverb- AKINASU WA YOME NI KUWASU NA (Dont let your daughter-in-law eat the freshly harvest eggplant). This is often used as an example of a first son`s family (especially the mother), bullying his wife. In this case by begrudging her the delicious nasu. A look at traditional folk beliefs show us, however, that it is not malice, but concern for the young brides health, and especially her child-bearing capacity that is expressed by this saying.
An interesting traditional use for nasu are for making traditional OBON (summer festival for the spirits of ancestors) decorations. By sticking four tooth-picks (or other sticks) into eggplants and cucumbers to make them look like legs, horses (the cucumbers) and oxen (the eggplant) are created. The swifter horses are for bringing the ancestral spririts back home, while the slower oxen are for sadly and reluctantly sending them back away. For more on this, see my article:
One more thing I would like to mention is the fact that in Japan dreaming of eggplant is considered to be one of the 3 auspicious things to dream about (especially at the New Year), after Mt Fuji, and Hawks. There are various theories about why this is so, but the most reasonable ones to me are that Mt Fuji, Mt Ashitaka ( taka means hawk) and eggplants were all famous symbols of SURUGA PROVINCE (now Shizuoka Prefecture), the home town of the greatest of the Tokugawa Shoguns ( Tokugawa Ieyasu).
One of the great things about living in Ibaraki is that the farmers are so generous. If you strike up conversation with any, dont be surprised to get a box full of summer veggies to take home. a unique and quaint custom will might notice while walking around Tsukuba`s old neighborhoods is that when the farmers find double-eggplants ( two-pronged eggplant), they dont eat them or sell them (because they look like human legs!). Instead they offer them to DOSOJIN sacred stones, in the same manner as they do with two-pronged daikon radish! For further details read what I wrote at:
Keep an eye out for these rustic offerings. And dont hesitate to walk along the edge of a field and crouch down to have a better look at the eggplants beautiful flower.