This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact http://www.agimag.co.uk/ (Issue 06: Feb/Mar 2013) in the column “Asian Verbal Impact”.
Aubergine: the classic Mediterranean ingredient. Melanzana to the Italians; eggplant to the Americans; and a fixture on the oven-trays of Britain’s chattering classes who serve it, lemon-drizzled, on cous-cous dreaming of warmer climes. But it’s big on Indian menus too, isn’t it? And in Middle Eastern cooking, surely? So where exactly does it come from?
Although the earliest written records of aubergines come from fifth century China, cultivation is believed to have originated in India. In any case, our story starts with the Sanskrit vatingana, loosely translatable as “vegetable that stops you breaking wind”. Drop the “t”, change a few consonants and vowels and shift forward a thousand years or so and you get baingan, the standard Hindi word for aubergine. But that’s just a sideshow compared to what happened when the vegetable travelled west into Persia. Modern Hindi is famously peppered with words borrowed from Persian and Arabic, so it’s worth remembering that this was a two-way trade, in this case resulting in the Farsi word bademjan – as in the famous Iranian aubergine and whey appetizer kashk-e-bademjan.
It is likely that the Arabs first encountered aubergines when they conquered Persia in the seventh century. In any case, in Arabic the word became al-badinjan (the al simply meaning “the”, and found in words like algebra and alcohol) and was syndicated across the Islamic empire. In the westernmost reaches it entered Moorish Spain and lost the al to become berenjena, still used in modern Spanish – try the gratinada version at your local tapas bar. Europeans regarded the vegetable with suspicion; indeed, it has been argued that the Italian melanzana is a corruption of the Spanish, re-interpreted as mela insana or “mad apple”.
Meanwhile, the Portuguese variant, berengela, travelled back East to become the Anglo-Indian brinjal, a word familiar to curry aficionados across the UK. In eastern Spain, on the other hand, Catalan-speakers retained the Arabic article and called it albergínia, a mouthful for their Gallic neighbours who couldn’t manage the “l” in “alb-”. Hence, in the same process that turned the Latin words falsus and castellus into faux and château, the name given to the delicacy favoured by faddish Parisian diners in the late 18th century was none other than the one that ultimately crossed the channel into the English dictionary: aubergine.
Disclaimer: while the above is based on well-established theories of etymology, it should be noted that alternative theories exist for a number of the word origins described.