The history of this Italian specialty is dubious at best and at least three regions of Italy believe their’s is the originator of this popular recipe: Parma, Campania and Sicily. In the recipe, layers of fried eggplant are interspersed with parmigiano cheese and tomato sauce, then baked to create a scrumptious and satisfying meal.
Many believe that its name, parmigiana, is derived from the northern region of Parma. In the 15th and 16th century, there was in fact a saying, “cooking like the parmigiani” which meant layering vegetables in a pan, but by the 17th century onward, it just meant cooking with the famous cheese. This is but a theory that is hard to prove.
A look at the main ingredient in the dish tells a different story. Eggplant was not indigenous to Italy. It was brought over from India by Arab travellers in the 15th century. This would suggest that the humble eggplant arrived in southern Italy, most likely through Sicily. This would also suggest that parmigiano cheese, which originated in Parma, would also not have been an original ingredient in the first version of the dish.
So if neither Parma nor parmigiano figured into the original history of the dish, where did it get its name? Another widely-accepted theory is that parmigiana is derived from the Sicilian dialectal word parmiciana, which refers to the wood slats of window shudders that overlap like the layers of eggplant. Others, however, contend that the name comes from a Persian word, petrociana, by which the eggplant was known when it first arrived on Italian soil, before it was called mela insana, or “unhealthy apple”.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, parmigiana appears in Neapolitan culinary literature. This could support a theory that, like many other Eastern foods like rice and spices, the eggplant entered Italy at Sicily and made its way north to Napoli, where it was enveloped into Campana cuisine, adding this region’s delicious mozzarella!
Regardless of its true origins, it is delicious and we want to share the recipe with you!
Heat the oil in a large frying pan (or wide saucepan), add the garlic, thyme and sage, and cook gently for a few mins. Tip in the tomatoes, vinegar and sugar, and gently simmer for 20-25 mins until thickened a little.
Meanwhile, heat a griddle (or frying) pan. Brush the aubergine slices on both sides with olive oil, then griddle in batches. You want each slice softened and slightly charred, so don’t have the heat too high or the aubergine will char before softening. Remove to a plate as you go.
In a large baking dish, spread a little of the tomato sauce over the base. Mix 25g of the Parmesan with the breadcrumbs and pine nuts, and set aside. Top the sauce with a layer or two of aubergine slices, then season well. Spoon over a bit more sauce, then scatter over some mozzarella, Parmesan and basil leaves. Repeat, layering up – and finish with the last of the tomato sauce. Scatter over the cheesy breadcrumbs and chill for up to 24 hrs, or bake straight away.
Heat oven to 200C/180C fan/gas 6. Bake for 30-40 mins until the top is crisp and golden, and the tomato sauce bubbling. Rest for 10 mins, then scatter with basil leaves and serve with salad and focaccia (see 'goes well with').
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