Eggplant acts like a sponge and soaks up the flavors of spices, especially when included in Southern European and Middle Eastern cuisines. Caponata, baba ghanoush and bharta all feature a variety of spices that combine sublimely with silky eggplant to create dips, salads and main courses that are fragrant and unique.
The existence of hundreds of recipes for Sicilian caponata -- a thick blend of roasted tomato and eggplant mixed with herbs, olives and almonds -- demonstrates the wide range of spices that blend with eggplant. Oregano and thyme add classic flavors, while unusual additions, such as ground cinnamon, add depth of flavor in some versions. Other familiar spices identified with Italian cuisine, such as dried basil, black pepper and garlic powder, also marry well with eggplant.
A veritable staple in Middle Eastern cuisine, eggplant shines when made into a highly spiced dips. Baba ghanoush is a standard but usually contains fresh herbs and sesame paste. Variations may mix in chili powder, cumin, ground coriander, dry basil and black pepper. Paprika, either smoked or sweet Hungarian, adds color and meatiness to eggplant dips, and cayenne provides a clean heat. In North Africa, cooks candy eggplant with sugar water, cloves and orange water.
Pakistan and India put eggplant to good use in curries and stews. Classic curry blends, such as garam masala, blend well with eggplant stewed in coconut milk and chilies. Baingan Bharta, a spicy Indian-Pakistani eggplant stew that may be served with naan bread or over rice, uses turmeric, cumin, cayenne and coriander to season the eggplant.
If you're prepping eggplant American-style -- just marinating or seasoning it before sending it to the grill or broiler -- simple is best. Salt and pepper allow charred eggplant's smoky flavor to shine, while a simple vinaigrette with dried thyme and/or oregano is also appealing.