Eggplant is more than an ingredient, more than a sex emoji.

On falling in and out of love with eggplant

Eggplant is more than an ingredient, more than a sex emoji.
Illustration: Allison Corr

Once, a friend texted me, What is your story with eggplant?

Eggplant is the love of my life, is my story with eggplant, I told her.

In 2018 I was eating eggplant all the time, so much eggplant, eggplant on a Monday and a Tuesday and a Wednesday and a Friday night, and on the Sabbath. The eggplant was a simple recipe that I picked up from shadowing a friend’s kitchen habits: stir-fried with onions and tomatoes and bell peppers. And, always, no matter what other combinations of spices I used, heavy with the black pepper and chilli, because what’s the point of food if you’re not crying while eating it?

I always made the eggplant the same way. First, I’d fry the onions and garlic and coriander stems, then add the tomatoes and bell pepper, chopped up in cubes. The tomato paste went in next, and after that, the eggplant. I preferred long, dark purple globe eggplants, which I’d dice up into bottle-top sizes and throw into the pan. Sometimes there’d be mushrooms, but not always, and mostly only when I was cooking it for someone else (mushrooms being easier for most people to accept as the center of a meal than eggplant). Then the spices would follow: black pepper, cumin, dhana jeera, chilli. Coriander leaves sprinkled at the end, for the culture.

Eggplant occupies an oddball place in Kenya’s food imaginary. Meals are engineered to revolve around a protein, which are almost always a type of meat, or a legume. That eggplant is technically a fruit means that it often isn’t treated with the seriousness it deserves. A lot of Kenyan households only ever use eggplant to “thicken the soup,” not as the center of a meal. Whenever I told anyone about my love for eggplant, I was met with incredulity. Eggplant was either not food, or it was something used to elevate the taste of the main food, or it was a sex emoji.

Here, now, I think randomly of those characters in a Franzen book who went to Bologna, discovered tomato eggplant, and when they returned to New York they had it every day for months. I understood them, understood their compulsion.

For a two-year span, eggplant was the love of my life. I was living alone for the first time, and all my house had was piles of books on the floor that I’d read with Phil Collins playing in the background. I was in love with Phil Collins. I was in love with my jogging, which I’d do every evening at five. I was in love with my Bluetooth speaker, which I’d bought cheap off the internet and played on blast for hours on end. Moving out on my own meant that I could finally try out new dishes and not worry about what would happen if my attempts went bust. Eggplant was one of these dishes. I fell in love with it, and I’d defend it vehemently to friends and people I was dating who doubted its efficacy as a main meal.

Now, I remember my old house, and it was small, and a mess, with all the books lying askance on the floor, and there was always music, but that speaker got spoilt and I threw it away, and I no longer listen to Phil Collins, and I don’t jog anymore, and eggplant is no longer at the center of my culinary thinking. One moment I loved eggplant, would cook it every day, would stock up on it every weekend, but then one day I just didn’t feel like making it, then another, and another. I feel sad about that loss and think about recovering it, but how do I do it? I don’t seem to like how eggplant tastes anymore.

A few months ago, I bought eggplant for the first time this year. I cooked it in the old way, but nothing. In the end, I had to throw most of it out, uncooked. Then, in July, I made some for someone, and she had doubted that she would like it, but she did. And she’s said to me, Carey, I think about your eggplant a lot, and I didn’t say anything, because I don’t think about my eggplant at all.

Instead, I have found myself in love with other things. I learnt how to make a from-scratch Indian lamb curry whose tenderness melts into my mouth, and I have made it again, and then again. A friend got me two Ethiopian spices, Berbere and Shiro, and I have been infusing them into my beans and my lentils, and I am very excited about how my Misir Wot is coming along. I started thinking about my teas, and now I am experimenting with different-different spices, aglow at how disparate scents mesh into one, and laughing at something a friend of mine said once, that her dream is to start a chaibrary.

There’s a moment I’m thinking about, when one is driving, and the car stops all of a sudden, loses power all of a sudden, and no matter how hard one tries to restart the engine, the power’s gone. Ditto eggplant. How do you suddenly love a food with all your might, then the next moment you feel nothing when you eat it? Maybe it was that eggplant as a meal was a new idea to me, and when the novelty wore off, the excitement of eating it wore off. Or that sometimes a food comes into your life and it suits that era of your life, but then that era fades into another, and you turn to new foods to see you through. Or maybe it’s like dating, where you love a person with all your might, but then something fundamental about you, the thing that made this love possible, changes, and then there’s a sudden loss of power, and you break up with this person because you can’t stand them anymore. Or because they don’t excite you anymore.

Things end, a lot of people in rom coms said once.

Is this a breakup story? I don’t know. If it were, it’d be a good one—a sad one, yes, but good sad, where I’d be walking down the street, a face mask on, and I’d see this ex, eggplant, and they’d see me, and I’d go hey, and they’d go hey, and I’d say hey again, and it’d be all cool or whatever, and I’d tell my ex that someone had been making jokes about them, saying that all they’re good for is to be used as the sex emoji, but that I’d put that person right, defended eggplant, said eggplant was more than that person would ever hope to be. Or whatever. I don’t know.

“We struggle so hard to hold on to these things that we know are gonna disappear eventually. And that’s really noble,” someone in a TV show I love said once, and I’m thinking about how the foods of our lives disappear when it’s time for their disappearance. Maybe what would be noble here would be finding ways to keep eggplant in my life: use it in ways I haven’t yet, pair it with dishes I haven’t yet, try recipes I haven’t yet. Or maybe I should let it go, and only ever think of it as that happy time at the start of my twenties when I was in love.

I love my Misir Wot. And my lamb curry. I love that I am the type of person who makes Misir Wot, and lamb curry, and can also make naan on the fly to accompany either. However, in my moments of disquiet I worry about losing them too. I worry that I only love them in this current era, and that when I grow out of it these dishes will also be discarded. But perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps what will happen is that I will lose these new dishes only to discover something new, something that will excite me just as much. And perhaps that is one of the joys of food: that there are always new dishes to learn, new tastes to immerse oneself in, and all our discarded foods are merely guiding us there.

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DISCUSSION

I don’t dislike eggplant but its not on my shopping list often. I really only ever see it as eggplant parm or maybe grilled. I think my main issue with trying new things with it is that the water content is super high so you have to press or salt them so they dont turn to mush. Also contrasting that mush is a tough skin that in most cases is best removed. Its probably worth looking up some recipes but I always see it as a food with extra burden to make well.