Although some claim that parmigiana di melanzane (or melanzane parmigiana) originated in Parma (the city of Parmesan cheese), it is rather more likely that this dish, a classic of southern Italian cuisine, came either from Naples or Sicily. Those in favour of claiming its origins in Sicily point out that the word parmigiana is derived from the Sicilian word palmigiana, meaning shutters – of which the layered aubergine slices are meant to resemble. Moreover, aubergines were first brought into Sicily via the Arabs in the 11th century; many consider that most Italian dishes containing aubergines would therefore have been conceived on the island. The earliest mention of something resembling the dish comes from Simone Prudenzani’s Il Saporetto, a rhyming poem about food in which the recipe refers to parmisciana. However, melanzane parmigiana received its first mention in the 1786 cookbook, Il Cuoco Galante, by Neapolitan chef, Vincenzo Corrado. He recommends aubergine alla parmigiana, i.e. aubergine seasoned with butter, herbs, cinnamon, spices, grated parmesan cheese and covered with a cream sauce of egg yolks before baking al forno. While this may be far removed from the parmigiana di melanzane of today, there is a specific reason for that: tomatoes would just now start gaining widespread popularity in Italy. Despite their use in a type of sauce, alla spanuola, already utilised by the chef to the Spanish viceroy of Naples, Francesco Leonardi’s 1790 cookbook L’Apicio Moderno contained the first recipe for tomato sauce with pasta – a combination that would revolutionise Italian cuisine, and encourage the use of the sauce in other ways. In a 1839 edition of his earlier work, Cucina teorico pratica, Ippolito Cavalcanti, the Duke of Buonvicino, included an appendix entitled, Home-cooking in Neapolitan Dialect, in which he details the creation of parmigiana di melanzane:
|” … and you do fry, and then organise layers in a baking dish with a layer of cheese, and basil soup or stew with tomato sauce, and simmer covered for the do.”|
…which resulted in the classic, saucy and utterly amazing rendition of fried aubergine slices smothered in cheese:
Below are two recipes for this delicious dish: either the traditional, fried version, or a slightly healthier option in which the aubergines are baked. Both are equally as yummy.
Melanzane di Parmigiana (Serves 4)
2 large aubergines
2-3 balls of mozzarella (bufala if possible)
grated parmesan cheese
red pepper flakes
20 leaves basil, chiffonade
salt and pepper
- Preheat oven to 200 C. Slice the aubergine into 1/3 inch rounds; place them in a colander over a large bowl and season generously with salt. Let stand for 30 min to de-gorge.
- Prepare tomato sauce; add in red pepper flakes if desired. Pour flour, beaten egg and breadcrumbs into three separate bowls and line a baking tray with wax paper. When the aubergine has drained, season with pepper, and, using one clean and one dirty hand, dredge the aubergine slices first through the flour, then the beaten egg and finally through the breadcrumbs. Transfer to the piece of wax.
- Heat up the vegetable oil in a deep pan until v. hot (but not smoking); test the oil by sprinkling a bit of flour into it, if it bubbles up it’s ready. Drop in the aubergine slices four at a time and fry until golden (approx. 5 min each side). Transfer to paper towel to drain. Repeat until all slices have been fried.
- Assemble the dish in a baking dish by layering each ingredient on top of each other: tomato sauce, aubergine slices (overlapping if necessary), basil, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses – ending with parmesan.
- Bake uncovered until cheese is melted, bubbling and beginning to get crispy (approx. 35-40 min).
- Preheat oven to 200 C. Cut the aubergine lengthwise and peel the skin off the rounded half, leaving a 1 inch strip around the cut edges.
- On a large baking sheet, drizzle olive oil all over the the aubergine halves and turn to coat; season with salt and pepper on both sides. Place the aubergine halves cut side down with the thyme sprigs and crushed gloves of garlic and wrap the baking sheet tightly with foil. Bake in the oven until the aubergine has become very soft (approx. 25 min). Meanwhile, prepare the tomato sauce; add red pepper flakes if desired.
- When the aubergine have softened, transfer them to a shallow baking dish cut side up. Spoon tomato sauce all over the aubergine and sprinkle with basil. Next, layer with mozzarella cheese, parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs. Drizzle with olive oil and bake uncovered until the cheese is bubbling and beginning to get crispy and the breadcrumbs have turned golden brown (approx. 25-30 min).