Imam Bayildi is a famous Turkish dish that translates into English as “the Imam swooned” or more commonly as “the Imam fainted”. But why did he faint?
The most common explanation for the Imam’s vapors is that he fainted when he heard how much expensive olive oil his wive had used in the dish.
An alternate story has the Imam’s wife coming with a dowry of 12 jars of olive oil. As a new wife, she wanted to impress and please her husband and so used an entire jar of oil in preparing her first meal for him. He was so pleased that he demanded that she cook like that every evening. After twelve days, however, she had used all of her dowry and so on the thirteenth day the Imam fainted when she told him that she was out of oil.
In my version of the dish, I think the Imam would find a rather parsimonious use of olive oil; rather, he might have fainted over the liberties I have taken with the dish named in his honor.
In casting about the internet I found that most versions of this dish are pretty tame, merely eggplants stuffed with a modest stew of onions, garlic and tomatoes (some have little or nothing else). Probably tasty enough but not very adventuresome or complex. Some versions include meat; either minced lamb or beef. Some versions include a bit of herb or spice but again, often quite modestly. In my mind though food of the Middle East, particularly that of Turkey or Iran, should be richly spiced, complex, with a balance of sweet and tart flavors. The best sounding version I found was at azélia’s kitchen, a food blog by a Portuguese/British woman who is also working on a book about sourdough baking. What I liked about her version of Imam Bayildi was her decision to add allspice just because she thought allspice is an underused spice.
My version follows Azélia’s fairly closely but with some diversions of my own including some basil to add an herbaceous note, more spices to add warmth and zip, some pomegranate molasses for a richer sweetness and some lemon juice for balance. I’ll refer you to her excellent post which includes great detailed photos of the entire process and just simply list my ingredients here. Photos included here are of my version.
(adapted from azélia’s kitchen)
2 medium eggplant, calyx trimmed, cut in half length-wise
1 large yellow onion, chopped
3 Tbs. olive oil
1/2 pound ground lamb or beef
6 -7 small ripe tomatoes or equivalent in larger tomatoes (about equal to one 14 oz. can)
1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbs. red wine
1/2 tsp. ground allspice
1/2 tsp. whole cumin seed
1/4 tsp. Vietnamese cinnamon
1/2 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. Aleppo pepper
1 Tbs. pomegranate molasses
1 Tbs. Heinz Chili sauce or good quality ketchup
1/2 Tbs. lemon juice
Parsley for garnish
Hollow out the eggplant halves, reserve the eggplant pulp for the stuffing.
Preheat oven to 350˚ F. Salt the onion and saute in 3 Tbs. olive oil until softened. Add the garlic and cumin seed and saute for a few more minutes. Add the allspice, cinnamon, basil, Aleppo pepper, black pepper, reserved eggplant pulp, chili sauce and pomegranate molasses. Saute until the eggplant starts to soften and add the ground lamb. Continue sauteing until the meat loses its pink color; reduce heat and continue cooking until the mixture will mound up in a spoon. Watch carefully and stir occasionally to prevent burning.
Mix 1/2 C. of the stuffing with an equal amount of water and cover the bottom of a baking dish just large enough to hold the eggplant halves. Fill each eggplant half with 1/4 of the stuffing mix, mounding slightly. Bake in the center of the preheated oven for 30 minutes. Add 1/4 red wine to the baking dish and cover with aluminum foil; bake an additional 30 minutes or until the eggplant halves are tender.
Garnish with chopped parsley. Serve hot/warm as an entree for two or at room temperature as a first course.
Thank Azélia as you eat and try to keep from fainting.