The Parmigiana of eggplants

An Italian delicacy between Emilia, Sicily and Campania

by Chiara Fazio

The sweet scent of a tomato passata mixed together with fresh basil; the oil combined, layer by layer, with the melted cheese and eggplants reach the palate in a harmonious set of flavors.  “Parmigiana”, a culinary excellence that daily runs through the Italian’s tables from north to south, is harmony, as well as art. This dish speaks about Asian and Arab merchants around the Middle Ages importing eggplant on our continent; it introduces us into aromas that evoke different  mediterranean flavours and reaches everybody everywhere.

The tomato’s introduction in Europe, after the discovery of the Americas, dates the birth of “Parmigiana” that probably dates back to a period between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, the origins of this fabolous dish are still quite uncertain. According to some, in fact, the term derives from the Sicilian "parmiciana" indicating the wooden strips of a shutter, whose layered arrangement looks like one of the fried eggplant slices. To reinforce the idea of Sicilian’s origins contributes, also, the dialect name given to the type of eggplant employed ("petronciane"), that are also mentioned in the famous book “La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene” written by Artusi in the in 1891.

In contrast, the Devoto-Oli dictionary contains the following definition of "Parmigiana": "indicates cooking like parmesan, the inhabitants of the city of Parma; it also means to cook vegetables in layers".

The same definition is provided by the etymological dictionary Cortelazzo-Zolli, who traces the emergence of the lemma to a date before 1440, specifically to a poem of the poet Simone de’Prodenzani, in which he, listing a series of courses, placed the “Parmesan” between fruits and desserts. The Parma attribution, instead, seems to be confirmed by references to the type of cheese used for its preparation; it appeared in several cookery books printed between 1600 and 1800, or Parmesan.

However, the first recipe due to what we now know as "Parmesan" is shown in a treatise entitled "Il cuoco galante," written in 1733 by Guido Corrado, an apulian chef of the most prestigious neapolitan families, where the author suggests the possibility of preparing the eggplant in the manner of zucchini, parsnips, carrots and tomatoes:

“Le zucche lunghe (zucchine) devono essere né troppo lunghe, né piccole. Prima di cuocerle bisogna raderle d'intorno, e tagliarle in sottili fette rotonde; poi polverate di sale, per qualche tempo, acciocché mandino fuori un certo cattivo umore, e si renda la loro carne piacevole, da usarla in quelle maniere che si dirà, si spremono tra le mani, o tra due tondi, s'infarinino, e si friggano nello strutto. Si servano in un piatto tramezzate di parmigiano, e butirro, coverte con salsa di gialli di uova, e butirro, rassodate nel forno

The expert in Neapolitan cuisine Jeanne Carola Francesconi believed that the first official version of the eggplant parmigiana was the one described two centuries ago by Vincenzo Corrado and Ippolito Cavalcante. In the book " La cucina napoletana " the Francesconi wrote:

"Another glory of the Neapolitan cuisine, is the parmigiana. A few elementary flavors that complement and behold an exquisite dish, tasty and appetizing, which is well suited to summer."

And it is in fact in 1837 that Ippolito Cavalcanti, Duke of Buonvicino, published his most important work: "Cucina teorico pratica". In an extract from the pamphlet "Home cooking in Neapolitan dialect", appeared as an appendix to the edition of 1893:

"... And you'll fry; and then you will them in a baking dish, layer to layer with cheese, basil and broth or stew with tomato sauce; and covered  you will be ready to stew everything"

Today the most accepted version of “Parmigiana” is the one with an undoubtedly protagonist, the eggplant; however, are equally feasible different tasty variations in which the eggplants are replaced with other vegetables such as zucchini, potatoes or peppers. The are obviously, being this dish very well known, a lot of different regional versions and interpretations  from all around the world.



The “Parmigiana” is included in the list of traditional Italian food products (P.A.T.) by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry (Mipaaf).

The eggplant has long been accompanied by bad name, because his name was improperly translated as "insane apple". During a long time the consumption of this vegetable was associated to insanity so the dish spreads in Europe only from the eighteenth century, first at the humble canteens of the people, then in the homes of the nobility. The same “Parmigiana” was initially a simple dish, which became rich over time.
Another hypothesis of the etymology of "Parmesan" would be derived from the Turkish word "patican" or from the Arabic "al-badingian". It could be, in fact, a legacy of past dominations: not surprisingly, the “Parmigiana” is very reminiscent of the Greek moussaka and the Arab Tiani.

It could be possible that the “Parmigiana” draws its origin from the Duchy of Parma where, thanks to the good political relations between rulers, spreads, in 1730,  into the Kingdom of Naples by taking permanent home at the kitchens of the entire south.



Cut the eggplant into slices lengthwise. Fry them, a few at a time, in abundant oil; drain and place them on a paper towel.
Salt them. Make the tomato sauce, perfuming it with some smell but without adding oil or butter: the result has to be thin. Add salt to last.
Pour into a baking dish a few spoonfuls of tomato sauce in a light layer; lie down on a layer of fried eggplant, slightly overlapping the slices, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese grated, a layer of mozzarella cheese slices, a few leaves of basil; pour a few tablespoons beaten egg; start again with the sauce and the ingredients to repeat layers, ending
with eggplant covered by tomato sauce; also add a few bit of butter or watered with a little oil.
Bake in a moderate oven for half an hour.La parmigiana should be left a bit in order to cool it; it is also delicious served cold.





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