Looking at the shape of this colorful vegetable, it is not hard to understand how eggplant got its name in the English speaking world. Its historical names are equally descriptive although in many cases erroneous. The Spaniards of the 16th century called them berengenas, or "apples of love," believing them to contain a love potion. Not everyone of that period was so gracious. Botanists of northern Europe believed that eating eggplant would make a person insane, so they called the species Mala insana, or "mad apple."
The plant originated in Burma and India although another type was developed in China. Records from the 5th century describe the plant. It must have seemed something of an oddity when it came to Europe about 1,500 years ago via Arabia and North Africa. "Melongena," which has become part of the scientific name, was a 16th century Arabic name for one kind of eggplant.
One of the oldest records about eggplant is in a Chinese book written in the 5th century of our era. A black dye was made from the plant and high-fashion women used it to stain their teeth. After polishing, it gleamed like metal. The next oldest records are from Arabia in the 9th, 10th, and 12th centuries.
The fruit of the eggplant develops in many colors such as yellow and purple, white, ash-colored, variegated and brown varieties. Shapes may include round, oblong, pearshaped, and long fruits.
The Spaniards introduced eggplant to the Americas and it was grown in Brazil starting around 1650. Many varieties of this colorful vegetable were raised as ornamentals in the United States until about 50 years ago. The large, purple varieties are favorites in the U.S. but in the Orient smaller fruited varieties are more popular.