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Eggplant Parmigiana is a true classic of Italian cuisine—resourceful, seasonal, economic, and deliciously satisfying all at once—that has made its way into the hearts and homes of people all over the world. Its history, however, is much debated: With both Sicily and Naples claiming it as their own (and with equally good reasons), this is a dish whose origins remain a mystery.
A little Italian lesson helps to clear up a few things. In Italian, this dish is sometimes incorrectly called Melanzane alla Parmigiana, which means “Parma-style eggplants.” Like Spaghetti alla Bolognese (in Bologna style), Triglie alla Livornese (Livorno style red mullet) or Carciofi alla Romana (artichokes Roman style), countless Italian dishes are named after the city with which it's historically and traditionally linked.
However, this dish is not from Parma, in Northern Italy. It's true name is Parmigiana di Melanzane—in other words, a parmigiana of eggplants.
So what is a parmigiana exactly? In Sicilian dialect, parmiciana refers to the type of wooden shutters with horizontal slats (also known as louver) that you typically see on palazzi in the region. One can easily imagine the visual concept of these layers of fried eggplant mimicking the layers of wooden slats in the shutters.
Prominent Italian food historian Massimo Montanari notes that the term “parmigiana” as a type of gastronomic preparation has actually existed for hundreds of years and can be found in Italian recipe books from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. And, in fact, you do come across modern recipes for parmigiana di zucchine (some think zucchini may be the original parmigiana, as it can be traced back to a recipe in a Neaplitan cookbook from the late 1700s) or parmigiana di zucca (made with pumpkin). This further supports the claim that the true name is not related to the city of Parma.
Now that we've got the name straight, let's talk the dish itself. It's most classic and basic form is deep-fried eggplant slices layered with a simple tomato sauce and cheese of some form, then baked until bubbly and golden brown.
But each household of every town in each region has their own take on the parmigiana—and that is precisely what makes this such a good dish: It's versatile and adaptable to different tastes and, undoubtedly, best when made from scratch, at home, with love for the people who are about to eat it. This also explains why, when you ask around, everyone says their nonna makes the best version of parmigiana.
How the eggplants are treated is probably the most important part of the parmigiana. Those who are more concerned with health than flavor usually grill the eggplant slices. But this is neither traditional nor the best way to prepare eggplants for this particular dish. The most classic way is to deep-fry them, making the eggplant slices give way to an utterly silky, almost melting texture.
But Neapolitans are known for going a step further: dusting with flour, dipping in egg, and then deep-frying. The eggplant slices hold their shape a little more, drinking up a little less oil, but the result is a heartier, richer dish, one that would easily be the main (though some Neapolitan grandmothers would still contest that this is a side dish). Some even flour, egg, and breadcrumb their eggplants before frying.
Either way, the most important thing you can do in preparing your parmigiana is to salt the eggplants for about an hour before frying. It removes excess water in the eggplants, which means they take better to frying, and thereby improves both the taste and texture tenfold. Peeling the eggplant before frying is just a matter of preference.
Fresh mozzarella, torn or sliced (then left out before using so that the excess liquid drains off), is common in Naples and makes for a quite creamy, cheesy, juicy parmigiana.
In Sicily, it's often pecorino, sheep's milk cheese, or caciocavallo, a large, semi-aged cow's milk cheese that you might see, most commonly, hanging like a sack from the ceiling of a good Italian deli or in the form of rectangular bars, piled high like bars of gold. It's a full-flavored cheese, similar to provolone (which could possibly substitute if you can't find the caciocavallo).
Parmesan, of course, is also commonly used (and this is perhaps why it's commonly thought of as the eponym of this dish), but historically speaking, Parmesan, a northern Italian cheese, was not widespread and did not make its way down to Naples or Sicily until after the Second World War.
This might just be the one thing everyone agrees on: It's a basic tomato sauce made with yellow onions, tomato purée, and basil leaves. Someone might hrow a garlic clove in there, but it's not usually necessary. It's important to keep the sauce quite simple and very fresh to counterbalance the fried eggplants. Also, don't be heavy-handed with the salt: The cheese will do plenty of the work of flavoring the parmigiana for you.
This is the fun part. This is the "stamp" that goes into the parmigiana to make it your own. Hard-boiled eggs, sliced or even left whole and layered in with the eggplant, is one of the most common additions. Thinly sliced ham is sometimes added along with the eggs. Scamorza, a smoked mozzarella, can make things interesting or, if you really want to get serious, you can crumble grilled pork sausages into the layers.
In Sicily, you might find recipes that call for a beaten egg mixed with a handful of grated cheese to be poured over the top of the parmigiana—it creates a beautiful, tasty golden crust that holds the whole thing together nicely. Some also like to top the parmigiana with breadcrumbs for a nice crunchy crust.
Want to pull it back a bit? In Puglia they have their own version of the parmigiana, such as this tomato-less parmigiana bianca.
Serves 4 as a main or 6 as a side
2 pounds (1 kilogram) whole eggplants
1 small yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
17 ounces (500 grams) bottled tomato passata (purée)
Handful of basil leaves
2 cups (500 ml) neutral vegetable oil, for frying
8 ounces (220 grams) caciocavallo cheese, grated (or Parmesan or provolone)
1 pinch salt, plus as much as needed for salting the eggplants
Photos by Emiko Davies