Health food: Why eggplant is the new superfood

Eggplant with Sicilian pesto (find the recipe in our eggplant collection, link below).
Eggplant with Sicilian pesto (find the recipe in our eggplant collection, link below). Photo: Marina Oliphant

Avocado is officially toast - and not in the dreamy, smashed with olive oil on sourdough kind of way. No, instead it's taking a back seat to the new glossy, up-and-coming superfood, the eggplant. 

No longer the dark horse of the nightshade family reserved for creative cooks, the voluptuous eggplant (or aubergine as it's also known) is finally entering the spotlight.

Eggplant: The new super food accessory?
Eggplant: The new super food accessory? Photo: Sam Bailey

Hailed the 'mighty aubergine' by acclaimed chef Yotam Ottolenghi, the delicious ingredient once considered 'poor man's meat' has now become a headline act at restaurants all over the globe.

As a star ingredient in many of his recipes, Ottolenghi's homage to the humble eggplant has revolutionised its status, thanks to his marriage of fresh flavours and Middle Eastern flair.

With dishes such as roasted eggplant paired with pomegranate and saffron yoghurt and black garlic, broad beans and basil, the versatility of eggplant seen in his salads, sides and stews has captured the culinary crowd and helped usher in a resurgence of Middle Eastern food.

But its prevalence reaches beyond our plates; aubergine has also become a popular topic across social and print media.

Yes, we're talking about the eggplant emoji. The symbol has gained notoriety for all the wrong reasons (used as a phallic)  and was temporarily banned by Instagram in 2015. The colour 'eggplant' also became an official Pantone hue and more recently the humble eggplant achieved cover star status featuring on the front of UK women's magazine Stylist.

But it isn't just headlines, consumers are demanding more too. In Australia, eggplant production has rapidly grown by 12.2 per cent (from 2008-2014) according to AusVeg, with exportation increasing by 300 per cent and the total value in eggplant production reaching $3.07 million.

Advertisement

Supermarkets have also seen an increase in popularity too. "At Woolworths the sale volume of eggplants has increased considerably over the last 12 months," says Mario Saad, Woolworths category manager of produce. "With growth up 14 per cent on last year, it could very well be the 'new avocado,' especially now shoppers are beginning to realise it's a superfood and are cooking with it more."

Saad also says its history as a 'poor man's meat' is a leading factor adding to lifestyle trends too. "The popularity of reduced meat diets has definitely contributed to eggplants resurgence," says Saad. "Eggplant makes a great alternative for creating hearty meals like eggplant lasagna, curry, breadsticks, vegie fritters or as a topping for toast. Our in-store magazine now includes a range of recipes throughout the year with eggplant due to the response of its growing popularity."

Australian chefs have also jumped on board the movement and are responding with menus that make the most of the seasonal superfood.

"Eggplant has now become part of so many dishes at our restaurant. It's coupled with duck breast as a smokey puree alongside kale and dukkah, miso glazed for our barramundi and as Brinjal pickle for our Sri Lankan vegetarian dish," says Ian Royale, head chef at Flying Fish in Sydney. "It always seems to find its way onto our menu one way or another."

He also welcomes it as a much overdue addition to the superfood scene. "Kale, avocado and cauliflower have had their day, the culinary world and diners needed something else," says Royale. "While eggplant has long been on chefs' menus, it hasn't had the spotlight, but now thanks to the known health benefits (antioxidants, dietary fibre, vitamins B1, B6 and potassium) combined with the Middle Eastern food trend, it's the ideal ingredient."

Somer Sivrioglu, a Sydney chef who's long been championing the eggplant in his Turkish restaurants Anason and Efendy, also loves the versatility it allows.

"I think while there has definitely been a rise in Middle Eastern food in Australia, but ultimately, it's down to versatility. Eggplant is a great flavour carrier," says Sivrioglu. "If you smoke an eggplant it boosts that cooking technique and you can then make a number of dishes from the same ingredient."

The only complaint Sivrioglu makes is that its options are endless.

"My issue is always having too many eggplant dishes on the menu. Most of the stars of Turkish food have eggplant - the Imam Bayildi, Hunkar Begendi, eggplant salad and Kuru Dolma to name a few, so every season we have to make an effort to limit the number of eggplant dishes we feature," says Siviroglu.

The plethora of eggplant options doesn't end with the menus either, according to the Turkish-born Australian chef.

"There are at least 20 types of eggplants and over 700 recipes - from char-smoked, to fried, dried, pickled and as jam," says Siviroglu. "When I came to Australia in 1995 there were only 'globe' eggplants and even they were a rarity, but now there's globe, Thai, Japanese, Lebanese, etcetera so it's definitely a trend."

But popularity aside, what's the health status of the trendy fruit and what new, inspired ways can we evolve our eggplant repertoire beyond a basic moussaka?

Sydney chef and author of 'The Healthy Cook' Dan Churchill says while the flavour is a win, its goodness really comes from its colour and the nutrient density found in its pigmentation.

Why? The purple skin contains nasunin​, an antioxidant that helps the brain by protecting the lipids in brain cell membranes that let nutrients in, and waste out. But it's not just the brain that benefits, eggplant also contains anthocyanins, flavonoids that reduce blood pressure and lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

Sold? Well spice up your next salad by roasting some. "My favourite way to eat them is to rid them of moisture, roast them, then finish with a caramelised miso sauce," recommends Churchill. Or, alternatively, swap your usual avocado for an eggplant stand-in: Tap into Middle Eastern flavours the 'Earth Bowl' - eggplant with labna, pomegranate and quinoa," (full recipe available in Dan Churchill's new cookbook, out soon).

And if you're a little unsure how to get on board the eggplant train give these delicious, chef-approved recipes a go!

Ian Royle's eggplant dish (recipe in story)

Ian Royle's eggplant dish (recipe in story) Photo: Ian Royle

Simple charred eggplant with saffron, ricotta, almonds and pomegranate (courtesy of Ian Royale, Flying Fish)

1 eggplant (cut into 1cm slices)

200ml olive oil

2 pinches cumin powder

1 pinch coriander powder

½ pinch turmeric

200g ricotta

2 pinches saffron (leached in 50mls of hot water)

100g sliced almonds (roasted)

1 cup pomegranate

1 bunch baby coriander

1 bunch baby mint

METHOD

1. In a bowl, combine olive oil and spices together and toss the eggplant. Season with salt flakes and chargrill until cooked through. Arrange on a plate.

2. Break down the ricotta and mix with the saffron, layer this on top of the eggplant. 

3. Sprinkle the almonds over the top with pomegranate seeds along with the baby herbs.

Efendy's Patlican Salata.

Efendy's Patlican Salata. Photo: Courtesy: Somer Sivrioglu


Patlican Salata (courtesy of Somer Sivrioglu, Efendy)

2 large eggplants

1 large red capsicum

2 spring onions finely chopped

½ bunch Italian parsley

1 tsp salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 tbsp lemon juice

1 tbsp apple vinegar

To garnish: add 2 tbl pomegranate molasses and 8 raspberries.

METHOD

Tip: The trick in making this recipe is to chop all the ingredients with a sharp knife or Zirh (Turkish style large mezzaluna), for authenticity, never use a food processor.

1. Pierce the eggplants with a fork.

2. Smoke directly on charcoal or a kitchen stove, turning over when blackened or until soft.

3. Place in a colander and drain excess water then cover with a stretch film.

4. Once cool, peel the skin and dunk in icy water, squeezing two - three lemons in to stop discoloration. Put back in colander to rest for another 10 minutes.

5. Cook red capsicum over an open flame and leave until all skin is burnt.

6. Place into a container and seal with a stretch film.

7. When cool, peel the skin under water to remove all black parts.

8. Chop spring onion, capsicum and parsley finely then chop eggplant until it's a chunky puree.

9. Add salt and pepper, olive oil, lemon juice and apple vinegar and mix all ingredients in a deep bowl.

10. Serve on a platter with drizzled pomegranate molasses and chopped raspberries on top.

Serves 6