aubergine…’cause that just sounds fancy

So let’s begin. I am a plant biodiversity scientist. One aspect of my research focuses on what plants animals eat. Humans aren’t terribly different from other animals in many respects but our choices in plants are somewhat different because:

1)   we cook plants and this changes their edibility

2)   our choices may reflect price rather than abundance

I became interested in what plants were edible and why they might be abundance or cheap in a supermarket from an academic perspective. But now with 2 kids with typical fussy diets and my own curiosity piqued, it’s become a hobby to expand the plant choices in our diet. Research to date indicates that the more diverse your diet, the more you hit nutritional targets. So it’s not all about just getting 5 servings of fruits and vegetables in your diet. It’s also about making those 5 servings represent a certain level of diversity. And let’s face it, eating just apples and carrots gets a bit boring. Even a non-foodie like me can appreciate that.

Am I good cook? Hell, no. I stink at it. I tend to be lazy, eat whatever is easiest to make my stomach stop grumbling, and whatever will absorb the vast quantities of wine that I pour down my throat at the end of a hard day. And that’s the real purpose of this blog. To get better, more adventurous, and maybe have a laugh along the way.

I have no aversion to fruits and veggies. I actually eat quite healthy. But, I mean, I don’t even bother to peel my carrots. My diet is a bit fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants and I tend to drink my stress away. Oh, did you think this was a nutrition blog? Um, sorry about that. No, not a nutrition blog exactly. But there are nutritional elements I tell you. Or at least I hope so.

3 large red chillies, deseeded and stalks removed, chopped

6 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

knob of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

2 lemongrass stalks, trimmed and chopped

2 tbsp ground turmeric

1 tsp chilli powder

2-3 aubergines (about 600g/1lb 5oz), quartered lengthways, then halved

1 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp sugar

6 shallots, finely chopped

1 tbsp Thai fish sauce (nam pla)

400ml can coconut milk

400ml vegetable stock or water

small bunch coriander, roughly chopped, to serve

serve on a bed of rice

This lovely recipe seems like a good place to start. It seems like a botanically diverse dish for sure:

Chillies, aubergines (eggplants) – Solanaceae; Garlic, shallots – Aliaceae; Ginger, Turmeric – Zingiberaceae; Lemongrass, rice, sugar – Poaceae; Olive oil – Oleaceae;  Coconut – Arecaceae; Coriander – Apiaceae. Lots of different flowering plants represented. Gives a gal like me the happies. Awesome!

So I scamper off to the supermarket to get these ingredients, some of which I’ve never cooked with before. First hiccup, nothing labelled “red chillies”

No “red chillies”. Eep. I went for the Habenero (orange ones, centre left). Go big or go home.

But thankfully, they offered a handy chart that allowed me to find something in the mid- to high- range of hotness. What is a Scoville Score, you ask? Good question.

Scoville Scale. Detour #1

Scoville Scale. Detour #1

According to, hot peppers are hot because they contain capsaicin oil and a Scoville ranking is how many units of sugar water has to be added to the extract before it isn’t hot anymore. The more sugar water added, the higher the score, the hotter that spicy pepper gonna be. So I went for Habenero, largely on a guess, but the chart was useful for preventing me from buying the ones that were going to make my children cry.

I march home and the kids are pretty excited that mom is in adventure-mode. I realize quickly that the first instruction is to “pulse” the peppers, garlic, lemongrass and ginger. This requires some sort of food processor I presume. I don’t have one. Ever the resourceful one I find this antique mortar and pestle lying about the house and figure I can put the kids to work banging the crap out of these minced ingredients. I even take this as a “country kitchens” photo op. I’m pretty proud of myself at this point.



The kids oblige. They are having fun!

For about 5 minutes. With the lemongrass still in fairly solid large lumps I figure it will have to do and set my 6-year old at putting the turmeric and chili powder on the eggplant slices. Gotta keep ’em happy.


Did she wash her hands? No idea. But these eggplants are about to get the cooties fried off them I figure.

At this point I’m realizing why I don’t cook much. I look around. This is not a quant country kitchen. This is my place. Do not be deceived. This is what it really looks like.

Welcome to the real. We can't all be Martha Stewart.

Welcome to the real. We can’t all be Martha Stewart.

And yet, miracle of miracles, the dish works out! Whole family eats it! Yes!

finishedBut I know what you’re really thinking! Was it diverse? Would it provide a vast array of nutrients? Well, compared to a dish of poutine, very much so. But there were still a lot of the branches in the tree of flowering plants that we left out. Below gives you a quick visual. There are ~300,000 species of flowering plants sorted into roughly 400 families. You wouldn’t want to eat them all, some of them are downright toxic. But we can eat many of them and eating more is better for our bodies and the planet. We can depict all the families as a sort of genealogy, called a phylogeny. There are so many different families they wouldn’t fit on the page but you can curve the family tree into these pretty radial figures. If I highlight where the species belonged in this dish, you can see from how slight the flecks of colours are that we just scratched the surface of plant diversity. Of course, one dish can hardly be expected to cover it all. So it was a good start!

A summary of how the ~415 families of flowering plants are related. This recipe sampled the coloured branches (red: 1x; purple >1x)

A summary of how the ~415 families of flowering plants are related. This recipe sampled the coloured branches (red: 1x; purple >1x)



11 thoughts on “aubergine…’cause that just sounds fancy

  1. Your random crap on the kitchen counter ain’t got nothing on our random crap – I swear they have random crap offspring when I’m not looking! I will save us all the embarassment by not posting a pic of it. Great blog, Jana! My kids (and hubby) would not touch this meal with a ten-foot pole, so bravo for keeping them open-minded!

  2. Awesome! Love this, neato mosquito that you’ve got a tree of your meal, I wonder which meal will have the most PD 🙂

  3. Welcome to the blogosphere Jana! The curry loked great, though you missed out one plant family – Vitaceae 😉 I like your focus on edible plant families – for many years I’ve kept a tick list of the families I’ve eaten; it’s up to about 70 now. It’s sort of birding for botanists 🙂

      • I got the idea from reading Sheil’s history of the British Ecological Society. At one of their early meetings they aimed to eat a banquet containing as many plant families as possible. If I recall correctly, something like 150 families were represented. Mind you, that was before the days of the APG….

  4. Yeah Jana. You go girl! Welcome to blogging. I am very exciting to see what a scientist and self-proclaimed non-foodie will reveal to us about food.

    You and your mom are having a breakout year!

  5. Way to go, Jana. Good times come to those who help themselves and I can see that you will be having some good times in your diverse kitchen. I like that mandala-like diagram, too – shows me that we could use a bit more diversity, too. You go, Diverse Diva!

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