Eggplant parmesan or Parmigiana di Melanzane in Italian, is a classic dish of southern Italy, made by slicing eggplant thin, frying or baking, sometime in batter or egg, then layering or rolling with olive oil, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, parmigiano cheese and basil.
Many people would assume Parmigiana Di Melanzane comes from where Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese comes from, the provinces of Reggio Emilia, Parma, of Italy; yet it’s not that clear! Most experts agree that the dish has its origins in Southern Italy even though in many cases dishes are named after it’s DOC (designation of origin). In this case the dish is believed to not be named after the city of Parma city and it’s provinces of Reggio Emilia of Northern Italy.
Eggplant arrived in Italy during the 15th century – when the Arabs brought it from India. Some historians claim Parmigiana is an Italian way of preparing food that dates back to the 14th and 15th centuries, yet others say the word in the name is derived from the Sicilian word ‘parmiciana,’ the little wooden strips that form a shutter – recalling the partially overlapping arrangement of fried eggplant sometimes used in the dish.
The first mention of a dish similar eggplant parmesan is from Il saporetto by Simone Prudenzani (1387-1440), where the recipe refers to parmigiano cheese. Prudenzani was from Orvieto and his Il saporetto is a rhyming poem about food and not a cookbook. But foods are mentioned including “parmisciana.” The eighteenth-century Neapolitan chef Vincenzo Corrado mentions in his book Il cuoco galante published in 1786, that eggplant can be cooked alla Parmegiana, meaning the eggplant was seasoned with butter, herbs, cinnamon and other spices and grated parmigiano cheese and covered with a cream sauce made with egg yolks before being oven-baked.
The version we know today, with its parmesan cheese and tomato ragu first appears in print in Ippolito Cavalcanti’s Cucina teorico-pratica published in Naples in 1837. Given that Corrado’s recipe was published in 1786, it appears it became popular in Naples in this short time, which is the time tomatoes were becoming more popular for the first time in Italy.
Written by Michael Sundburg