The eggplant is native to India and Pakistan and was first domesticated over 4000 years ago. The fruit was introduced to China around 500 B.C. The Chinese hybridized their own varieties of different shaped and colored eggplants.
The migration of the eggplant continued in the 9 – 12th centuries to the Middle East and westward to Egypt. The moors introduced the eggplant to the Spaniards and the fruit became popular all over Europe. The Spaniards thought the eggplant was an aphrodisiac and referred to as “Berengenas” or “The Apple of Love”. This of course added greatly to the popularity of the unusual fruit.
The love affair with the eggplant took a downward turn in Northern Europe where Albert of Cologne referred to the fruit as "Mala Insana" or "Mad Apples" (a take off of the Italian name "melanzana"). The fruit was thought to cause insanity if it was eaten. It seems the commoners got over that and by the 1600's several varieties migrated from Naples to Germany.
While the Spaniards were traveling the globe they took the eggplant to South America around 1650. It was Thomas Jefferson (well known for his promotion of horticulture) who introduced them to the United States in 1806 after receiving an eggplant from a friend in France.
This is just a sampling of a few of the many eggplant varieties available. See the sources section for links to sites with seeds and more information on varieties.
Western (Globe) Eggplant - This is your common grocery store variety. They are typically large with glossy dark skin. Use for eggplant parmesan or nice large slices for frying or grilling. Or cut in cubes and use in our Turkey Eggplant Chili recipe.
Japanese or Asian - This is one of my favorites. The Japanese long, slender eggplant is great for small servings. Slice lengthwise and grill or bake. We used Japanese eggplant for our Eggplant Parmesan. Also you can slice thin and use to wrap other ingredients.
Egg Shaped - there are many egg-shaped varieties in purple, white and variegated like the picture shown. This variety is named Caliope. These are fun to grow and are practical for some recipes.
Miniature or "baby" - Amishlandseeds.com carries several varieties some the size or walnuts and other bright orange. The small varieties can be cooked more quickly and tend to be less bitter even with a little aging.
With such a long culinary evolution eggplant uses are many and include, grilling, frying, baking or stewing and dips. The practice of "breading" keeps the spongy fruit from absorbing too much oil when fried.
Eggplants make a very good meat substitute for vegetarian cooking.