Imam bayildi is one of the all time great, most delicious ways to eat aubergine / eggplant.
The name means “the priest wept”, and theories as to why exactly the priest wept abound; possibly he had a young wife whose dowery was mostly paid up in barrels of olive oil. She cooked this dish for him. He loved it. She cooked it again for him. He loved it. She cooked it again, and that was the end of her olive oil dowery. Or possibly the priest cried in sheer pleasure as olive oil dripped down his chin when he took his first mouthful of creamy eggplant, and soft sweet tangle of onions.
The one thing these stories have in common, apart from the titular priest, is olive oil, of course. It’s what makes this dish so delicious. And we’re all just going to have to get over the fact that there’s such a lot.
I’ve written before about the romance of Arabian Nights style dinners – definitely a state of mind rather than a geographic region. I happily range from Silken Samarkand to Cedar’d Lebanon, decking out my apartment with tea lights in colored glasses and scattering rose petals on the table. This dinner, however, is authentically Turkish. Straight from my recent cookery school day in Istanbul. And it’s the perfect thing with which to woo a vegetarian or vegan.
It’s easier to buy medium sized eggplants, slice them in half, then scoop out a hollow with a grapefruit spoon into which, the onion tangle will be stuffed. But the fancy way to do it is to buy small eggplants, then hollow them out like a canoe using a combination of cutting, scooping and pressing the flesh in with your fingers. They taste the same as far as I can tell from pretty extensive testing all over Istanbul.
Here’s a very satisfying tip that I learned: cut into the stalk of the eggplant with a paring knife until you feel the hard core in the middle. Then cut round, twist and pull the green off to reveal the stalk. Why do it? I’m actually not sure, but every time I ate eggplant in Istanbul, that’s what had been done to the stalk, so my best answer is; it’s traditional. It just looks more authentic, that way, so that’s what I do.
Imam Bayildi (serves 4 – eat two on your date, save two for lunches during the week)
This recipe comes from the print out that I was given at the cookery school, and it’s so similar to Claudia Roden’s in Arabesque, I expect it’s either the same, or from the same Turkish Grandmother source.2 large, or 4 small eggplants 1 cup olive oil – and you might need more 2 medium onions 4 cloves of garlic 2 large tomatoes ¼ cup chopped parsley (a very generous handful un-chopped) ¼ cup chopped mint (ditto) 2 tbsp chopped dill 1 tsp sugar Juice from half a lemon Salt and pepper
- Slice the onion thinly and put in a bowl with 2 tsp salt and the lemon juice. Use your hands to scrunch the salt into the onion. This helps break it down and means that it will cook inside the eggplant (wash your hands afterwards with lemon to get rid of the onion smell)
- Grate in the garlic and add the chopped herbs (it’s best to really finely chop them – think dust). Save the stalks.
- Now skin the tomato. Don’t get het up about it. It’s not going to take a lot of effort. Boil a kettle, pour into a pan. Score a cross in the skin of the bottom of the tomato. Plunge into the water. Leave for a couple of minutes. Take out. The skin should now peel away easily
- Cut the tomatoes in half and squeeze out the seeds into a bowl. Dice the tomato and add to the onion mixture. Sprinkle in the sugar, add a glug of olive oil – 2 tbsp ish, stir everything up and let it sit
- Cut the green leaves off the eggplant, and cut into the step, round and twist, then pull of the green part to reveal the woody stalk
- If you’re dealing with large eggplants, slice them in half lengthwise and proceed
- Slice a thin strip off the eggplant so it will sit on the counter without rolling. Pare a few strips of skin off from either side – apparently this helps with the cooking as well as looking nifty in a zebra way
- If you’re dealing with small eggplants, you’ve done your flat surface and zebra stripes, so slice an opening in the top, then use a grapefruit spoon, or a combination of cross hatching and slicing and pressing in with your fingers, to make a hollow.
- For large halved eggplants, scoop out a hole
- Fill and indeed, overfill the eggplant with the onion mixture, and arrange in a baking dish or pan. Smother with olive oil (4ish tbsp) and season well
- Pour water into the dish so that it comes about 1 cm up the side of the eggplant. Add the tomato seeds and herb stalks to the water, along with any left over stuffing, then the rest of the olive oil (I pour this onto the eggplant and let it slide where it may)
- Bake or simmer covered with foil for 1 hour at a low heat (350ish), uncovering half way through. Allow to cool to something warmer than room temperature but not piping hot, before serving with plenty of bread to soak up the delicious oil (or make the dish in advance and warm up in the oven before serving)
If You Can Make That You Can Make This
- Mix leftover stuffing with mince, a can of tomatoes and a glug of wine, then simmer for an hour to make amazing pasta sauce
- Or use to top bruschetta
- Or make a stew with the ingredients - cube the eggplant and brown in some olive oil, add everything else, plus stock to cover and cook on a low heat for 1 1/2 hours until everything is soft and tangled. Add grated lemon zest and fresh parsley at the end to brighten up the flavors