A History of Eggplant Parmesan

Eggplant Parmesan, parmigiana di melanzane in Italian, is one of the classic preparations of southern Italy. It is a preparation associated with the cooking of Naples, but it is popular in the Campanian countryside and Calabria and Sicily too. Eggplant Parmesan is a casserole dish made by slicing eggplant thinly and frying it in olive oil. Some cooks dip the eggplant slices in batter or egg before frying, some just fry it, and many flour it first and fry it, while others more concerned with making the dish light, will bake or grill the eggplant slices. The eggplant is layered successively in a baking casserole with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, parmigiano cheese, basil, and hard-boiled egg slices.

There are several theories about the origin of eggplant Parmesan. The most obvious is that the name of the dish derives from parmigiano cheese, the predominate cheese used in the dish. Many food writers have voiced suspicion of this explanation because parmigiano is not native to Naples or other regions of southern Italy where eggplant Parmesan is found. They argue that, in fact, the dish originates in Parma in northern Italy, because either Parmesan refers to the city of Parma (which it does) or because the Parmesan cheese is from Parma (which it is).

I’ve never been persuaded by this line of thinking because from at least the fourteenth century parmigiano was a widely traded cheese and found throughout Italy. Furthermore, the eggplant made it’s first appearance in Italy in Sicily and the southern regions, not in the north and it’s likely that a dish for eggplant would be invented in the south. Second, the dish is famous in the Campania region in general, Naples in particular, as well as in Sicily and Calabria and not in Parma.

Another suggestion concerning the origin of the dish is offered by the Sicilian food authority Pino Correnti who argues that the word parmigiano actually comes from damigiana, a sleeve made of wicker where you put a wine bottle, or in this case, the hot casserole. Another explanation to the origin of the name of this dish is reported by cookbook authors Mary Taylor Simeti, Vincent Schiavelli, and several others. They suggest that the name has nothing to do with parmigiano cheese or Parma the city, but derives from the Sicilian palmigiana not parmigiana, meaning “shutters,” the louvered panes of shutters or palm-thatched roofs that the layered eggplant slices are meant to resemble. Simeti suggests that since the Sicilian have a “probrem” pronouncing the “l” it became parmigiana. Another Sicilian food writer, Franca Colonna Romano Apostolo, suggests that the name is parmiciana, the equivalent in Sicilian dialect to “Persian,” and not parmigiano, a cheese that is not important to the original dish.  These are speculative suggestions not supported by the evidence.

Let’s dig a little deeper here. The first mention of something resembling an 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.

I believe 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, this isn’t a huge amount of time, so it looks like it sprung into existence in Naples in the intervening time, which is incidentally the time that tomatoes were becoming more popular for the first time in Italy.


(Photo: Riziculture in the delta of the Ebre river in Spain, futura-sciences.com)

The Arabs had established riziculture very early on in Spain and were exporting it from Sicily by the tenth century. Traders could find rice in Levantine ports and fourteenth century Majorcan rice was sold at fairs in Champagne. In Venice, a deliberation of the Council of Ten in July 7, 1533, exempts rice from an excise tax because it takes the place of vegetables. The Provencal writer Quiqueran de Beaujeu wrote in 1551 of riziculture in Provence. One can’t help but notice that rice was being eaten in Europe before the development of riziculture on the Lombardian plains. The fourteenth-century cookery manuscript known as the Libro per cuoco by an anonymous Venetian gives a recipe, rixo in bona manera--that is, a kind of porridge of rice cooked in almond milk with sugar. In Italy, a person who laughed easily was said to have eaten rice soup, a play on words: che aveva mangiato la minestra di riso (he had eaten laughter/rice soup).