When Jews, fleeing persecution, left Spain and scattered across the Mediterranean in the 14th and 15th centuries, they brought distinctive recipes for eggplant with them. According to Orge Castellano, they may even be responsible for introducing the food into Italian and Greek cuisines. He writes:
The esteemed 10th-century Kitāb al-tabīj, . . . written by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, offers a window into the culinary and religious traditions of medieval Muslims and Jews. Of 543 recipes, 62 showcase the eggplant in various preparations, including one recipe called “eggplant, Jewish style.”
As the centuries progressed, the acceptance of vegetables in Europe wasn’t universally positive, as it had been during the golden age of Jewish culture in Spain. . . . In the Italian Renaissance, the humanist Ermolaus Barbarus dubbed the eggplant malum insanum (mad apple). . . . The ill-natured names reflected the disdain eggplant faced at the time, an attitude evident in Antonio Frugoli’s 1631 treatise where the gastronome suggested “delicate fruits to serve at any table of princes and great lords” while the rest of vegetables like eggplants were only “fit for peasants or Jews.”
The popularity of eggplants among the Sephardim transcended the sculleries’ confines, as evidenced in literature, music, poetry, and popular culture. For instance, in Francisco Delicado’s Portrait of Lozana (1528), the protagonist, Aldonza, boasts of her cooking talents while revealing her Jewish provenance: “Do I know how to make boronia? Wonderfully! And eggplant cazuela? To perfection!” Converso ancestry was often denoted by what they ate; food usually gave people’s tradition away, ultimately leading to their persecution and killings solely for [appearing] to observe Judaic dietary habits.
Despite his Spanish origins, Maimonides was among the eggplant’s detractors, labeling it unhealthy in one of his medical tracts. Those works will be the subject of the fourth and final podcast of our podcast series on the great rabbi and philosopher. Today, you can listen to the third here.