If I asked you whether a tomato was a fruit or vegetable what would you say? Fruit, right?
What about an aubergine?
A few months ago in my food anthropology seminar we were debating the difference between fruits and vegetables. I said that I thought that the difference was that fruits contain seeds, whereas vegetables don’t; this is what my Mum told me when I was younger. “What about aubergines, they have seeds?” someone asked, which seemed a good point – surely an aubergine can't be a fruit too, or a cucumber, or a pepper? I didn’t have full confidence in what my Mum had told me all those years ago so I didn’t fight my corner. However, I have since read a bit about it and it seems that, at least botanically speaking, Mum was right.
In botany, fruit is defined as “the ripened ovary of a flowering plant, containing one or more seeds”. This definition is taken from Dictionary.com, but is supported by various science and botanical websites, for example, Science Daily, Biology Reference and Biology Online.
Vegetable, on the other hand, is not a botanical term and it is harder to pinpoint a definition. Some say it is any edible plant, which is the most inclusive and far reaching definition. Some narrow this slightly, saying it is any edible part of a plant. Others, such as Dr Jim Bidlack of the University of Central Oklahoma, define it as any edible part of a plant, excluding the fruit, which is in line with my Mum’s definition.
Science Daily and the Botany Professor draw attention to the difficulty that arises when we start talking about nuts, tubers and fungi. Mushrooms, botanically speaking, are neither fruit nor vegetable, though we generally think of them as vegetables.
However, perhaps what is most important here is that we accept the cultural subjectivity of the term and the importance of context. Monica Wachman points out that in a culinary context we generally tend to classify fruits as those which are sweet or used in sweet dishes and vegetables as those which we use in savoury dishes. In this context a tomato would be considered a vegetable. Science Daily also highlights that vegetable is a culinary term and somewhat arbitrary and subjective. “Since "vegetable" is not a botanical term, there is no contradiction in referring to a plant part as a fruit while also being considered a vegetable.”
So, I ask you again: aubergine – fruit or vegetable?
Photos courtesy of Trevor Hyett.