If you’re a fan of eggplants, you’ll definitely want to explore the world of Chinese eggplants. These slender, flavorful vegetables have thinner skins, fewer seeds, and a sweeter, less bitter taste compared to regular globe eggplants. In this article, we’ll delve into the art of growing Chinese eggplant, sharing tips from farmer Christina Chan and our own experiences cultivating these delectable vegetables.
- Understanding Chinese & Japanese Eggplants
- Exciting Varieties to Grow
- Ideal Growing Conditions for Thriving Eggplants
- Cultivating Eggplants from Seed
- Harvesting & Storage
- Pest Management
- Tracing Eggplant Origins and Ancestral Tales
- Our Favorite Eggplant Recipes
- Embrace the Joy of Growing and Cooking
Understanding Chinese & Japanese Eggplants
Chinese and Japanese eggplants are members of the Solanceae family, which includes potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes. Unlike the Italian or American eggplants you may be familiar with, Chinese and Japanese eggplants have a more elongated shape, thinner skin, and fewer seeds. The skin of Chinese eggplants is so tender that peeling is unnecessary. In terms of culinary use, Chinese and Japanese eggplants are interchangeable, enabling you to embrace a wide range of recipes.
Exciting Varieties to Grow
When it comes to Chinese eggplants, you have a variety of options to choose from. Here are some popular varieties recommended by Christina:
- Ping Tung, Ping Tung Long (Taiwanese): These long, slender lilac-colored eggplants are the quintessential “Asian eggplant.”
- Orient Express and Asian Delite: Despite their slightly problematic names, these varieties are commonly grown Asian eggplants.
- Kamo: This Japanese heirloom variety boasts a flat bottom, round shape, and dense flesh, making it perfect for cooking.
- Thai Round: Popular in Thailand, Vietnam, and India, this small, round green eggplant requires a long, hot season and can be harvested when it reaches golf ball size.
Ideal Growing Conditions for Thriving Eggplants
Eggplants are typically grown as annual crops in North America, but it’s fascinating to note that they actually grow as perennials in South Asia. This indicates their preference for warm soil and hot weather. To ensure successful growth, avoid planting eggplants until after the last threat of frost has passed. Additionally, be cautious of wide temperature swings, as overnight temperatures below 55°F (13°C) and hot days above 95°F (35°C) can negatively impact fruiting. Aim for planting when nighttime temperatures are warmer, ideally between 70-85°F (21-29°C), as this range promotes faster growth. Keep in mind that excessively high temperatures, exceeding 95°F, may cause the plants to drop their blossoms.
Similar to peppers and tomatoes, eggplants thrive in full sun. Find a spot that receives 6-8 hours of direct sunlight daily, as more sunlight equates to healthier plants.
For optimal growth, eggplants prefer loamy soil, ideally balanced between sand, clay, and silt. This type of soil is well-draining while also retaining moisture. Eggplants also require ample nutrients, so consider adding organic matter, such as compost, to the soil. Mulching with compost will help retain moisture, which is crucial for these moisture-loving vegetables. Raised beds or dark-colored containers are excellent options for growing eggplants, as they warm up quickly and provide the necessary conditions for healthy growth.
Consistent moisture is essential for eggplants, especially when they are fruiting. Keep the soil consistently moist, but avoid over-saturating it.
According to Christina’s recommendation, space your eggplant plants at least 18 inches apart. This allows each plant to receive a sufficient nutrient supply and prevents them from competing with one another.
Days to Maturity
The average time for eggplants to mature after transplanting is 50-65 days, depending on the variety. To provide a timeline example, if you sow your eggplant seeds in late March, transplant them into the garden in late May, and you can start harvesting by the third week of July.
Cultivating Eggplants from Seed
To guarantee successful growth, it’s best to start growing eggplants indoors and then transplant them outside. Direct seeding is not recommended due to the eggplants’ sensitivity to cold temperatures.
Begin by starting the seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost. Once the danger of frost has passed, transplant the seedlings into the garden. Here’s an overview of the process:
- Sow the eggplant seeds in a seed tray containing peat-free potting soil or garden compost. Plant the seeds about ¼ inch (0.6cm) deep and water the tray thoroughly. To increase humidity and promote germination, you can cover the trays with a clear plastic lid or a similar transparent container.
- As the seedlings emerge, remove the plastic lids and transfer the seed tray to a well-lit area. Eggplant seedlings require abundant light, so ensure they receive adequate exposure. If they don’t receive enough light at this stage, they might experience weak growth.
- As the seedlings grow larger, you can transplant them into individual pots to provide more space for their development.
- Once the risk of frost has passed and the soil has warmed to temperatures above 70-75°F, you can harden off the seedlings. This involves placing the seedlings, still in their trays, in a sheltered outdoor area for 1-2 weeks. This gradual exposure to the elements will prepare them for transplantation.
- To transplant the seedlings, gently remove each seedling while keeping its root ball intact. Plant the seedlings 18 inches (46cm) apart in the ground, ensuring they are well-watered.
- As the plants grow, stake them or use cages to support their upright growth. If you’re growing eggplants in containers, stake the stems before the fruit forms.
Harvesting & Storage
Determining the ideal harvesting time depends on the specific variety you’re cultivating. Once an eggplant reaches its appropriate size, you can gently pull it from the plant or use a knife or shears to clip the stem. The skin should appear smooth and shiny. If it becomes matte or starts to exhibit yellowing, it may no longer be suitable for consumption and should be removed from the plant and composted.
Fortunately, you can harvest from a single plant throughout the entire summer season. In fact, the more you pick, the more your plants will continue to produce. After harvesting, store your eggplants in plastic produce bags in the crisper drawer of your fridge. Storing them without a bag will cause them to wrinkle more quickly. Consume the eggplants within one week for the best flavor.
To maintain healthy eggplants, proper pest management is essential. In the northeastern United States, common pests that may affect eggplants include the Colorado Potato Beetle and flea beetles. Here are some tips:
- Eggplant flea beetles resemble brassica flea beetles, but they are a separate species that specifically targets eggplants, creating tiny holes in the leaves. To prevent their damage, cover your eggplants with row covers immediately after planting. The covers will keep most of these pests out while providing extra warmth, promoting growth.
- Colorado potato beetles are larger and easier to spot. Both the juvenile and adult forms of these beetles can cause significant damage to your crop, potentially decimating it if left unmanaged. Regularly check your plants for the presence of these beetles. If you find them, manually remove and destroy them by squishing them or collecting them in a bucket of soapy water. Adding dish soap to the water ensures their demise.
- Performing weekly checks until your plants have set fruit should help keep pests at bay.
Tracing Eggplant Origins and Ancestral Tales
The eggplant’s journey traces back to a vast region spanning northeast India and Burma, reaching Northern Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Southwest China. In these areas, wild eggplant plants still grow as perennials. Over the centuries, Asian farmers have cultivated and selectively bred eggplants, resulting in a diverse array of cultivars.
The earliest written record of eggplants in Chinese literature dates back to 59 BC. Han Dynasty poet Wang Bao mentioned separating and transplanting eggplant seedlings in his work, Tong Yue. Chinese farmers carefully bred domesticated eggplants, transforming small, round, green fruits into larger, long-necked ones with purple skin. Chinese botanists also focused on enhancing flavor, aiming to eliminate bitterness from the fruit.
One of the most commonly available Chinese eggplant varieties in the United States is the Ping Tung Eggplant, which originated from Pingtung, Taiwan. This variety stands out for its productive fruiting, ability to withstand various weather conditions, and its non-bitter creamy texture when cooked.
Eggplants have even played unique roles beyond culinary uses. In certain Southeast Asian and Oceanic cultures, aristocratic women used the dark skins of eggplants to create black dye, which they used to “stain their teeth to a black luster,” a practice known as “ohaguro” in Japan.
Our Favorite Eggplant Recipes
If you’re wondering how to make the most of your Chinese eggplant harvest, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite recipes. These recipes showcase the versatility of Chinese eggplants and provide a range of options for your culinary adventures:
- Mapo Eggplant
- Eggplant with Thai Basil & Chicken
- Eggplant with Garlic Sauce
- Eggplant “Unagi”
- Di San Xian (“Three Earthly Bounties”)
- Steamed Chinese Eggplant with Spicy Lao Gan Ma
- Steamed Hunan-Style Eggplant
- Chinese Stuffed Eggplant
- Cantonese Eggplant Casserole
- Pasta alla Norma with Roasted Eggplant & Tomatoes
- Roasted Ratatouille Pasta
Whether you explore Chinese or non-Chinese recipes, Chinese eggplant is an exceptional ingredient that brings a delightful touch to any dish.
Embrace the Joy of Growing and Cooking
We hope this gardening guide, enriched with our learnings from the previous season, inspires you to grow your own Chinese eggplants next summer. Gardening is a rewarding experience, and the process of cultivating these vegetables offers both satisfaction and the pleasure of indulging in homegrown goodness. Happy gardening and cooking!