Eggplants So Sensual That They Made the Imam Faint

I love me some eggplant, and I love them every way you can make them. I like them battered and deep fried, with a tomato sauce. I like the little Asian ones braised in a Thai curry sauce, or stir fried with a Chinese garlic sauce. I love them in baba ganoush. I love them in moussaka. I love them as baigan bartha.

But, as much as I love all of those ways with eggplant, this dish of baby eggplant braised in copious amounts of olive oil and seasoned tomato sauce or juice, then stuffed with caramelized onions, golden, tomatoes, garlic, and in my version, golden raisins and pine nuts, and served cold, is my very favorite. It is lush. It is seductive. It is rich without being heavy.

It is, in a word, delightful.

This Turkish delicacy, which is served along with other cold mezze in the heat of summer, is called Imam Bayilidi, which translates literally to, “The Imam Fainted.”

Why ever did the Imam faint, you may be asking?

Well, it is said that the Imam (an Imam is an Islamic religious leader and scholar of the Koran who serves his community by leading prayers and teaching–he is essentially like a Protestant minister, because of course, an Imam can marry, unlike a Catholic priest) came home from a long day of study and ministering to his people, and was quite overcome with heat and weariness. His wife, whom he loved very much, had prepared for him a very special dish of braised, stuffed eggplant served cold. He took one bite of it, and the divine velvety richness of it quite overcame him and he fell into a swoon, much to the pleasure of his wife who was also very in love with her husband.

From that day forward, this dish has been known by the name, “Imam Bayildi” in memory of the beloved Imam and his culinarily-blessed wife.

That is one story about the name, anyway.

It is the one I prefer, because the other version says that that Imam fainted when he found out how much expensive olive oil went into the making of the dish.

That isn’t nearly so romantic a tale, nor is it very complimentary to the Imam or his wife, so I prefer the first story.

The method I use to make this classic dish is different than the usual way. In every recipe I have read, the stuffing is made first, and then the raw eggplants, which have had their tops trimmed off, are slit lengthwise from the bottom nearly to the top. The stuffing is then crammed into the slit, and the eggplants are put into either a deep pot or a baking dish, and the olive oil and tomato sauce are poured over it, and they are braised on the stove or in the oven.

What I do instead is prepare and slit the eggplants, then braise them unstuffed. Then, I make the stuffing and when the eggplants are fully cooked, I stuff it in, and chill the eggplants. I find that it is easier to get a large amounts of the stuffing mixture into the fruit by working with it after the eggplants are soft.

I also braise the eggplants uncovered so that the tomato sauce reduces a bit. If it reduces too much and starts to stick, some water, tomato juice or V-8 juice can be added (actually, you can season V-8 and use -that- in place of the tomato sauce to braise the eggplants–it works beautifully) in order to keep the sauce from sticking. Once the eggplants are done, I then take the reduced sauce or juice and olive oil, and whir it in a blender or food processor to emulsify it into a thick, deep red sauce. Then, I put the sauce into a squeeze bottle, chilled it, and applied it in an zigzag pattern over the cold eggplant for serving, and garnished it with a sprinkle of minced parsley and pine nuts. This not only dresses up the presentation–because, frankly, as tasty as Imam Bayildi is, it isn’t very pretty to look at–it adds another level of flavor and richness to the dish.

I also had extra stuffing left over, which I used to make a nest on the serving plate to cradle the eggplant. It made a pretty presentation, and once more, added more flavor and goodness to an already delicious dish.

I made this dish as an appetizer special for the weekend, and I thought that a dozen eggplants would be enough to carry us over both Friday and Saturday.

I was wrong. We sold out of the entire lot on Friday night, and people were raving about them.

So I bought another dozen at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday and made those and we nearly sold out that night, too. Luckily, we had enough left that I could eat one myself and give two to Leah, our bellydancer, for dinner that night. (I figured that a woman as graceful and beautiful as Leah is deserves the most sensuous foods to feed her loveliness.)

So here it is–my recipe for the best damned eggplant dish in the entire world–Imam Bayildi. You can leave out the pine nuts and golden raisins as they are not traditional, but let me tell you, they take the dish right over the top and to the moon.

So, go forth and get in the kitchen and make this dish for someone you love.

And when they swoon, make sure you are there to catch them, because you will definitely want to see the look of unbridled love that will flash in their eyes for you after they taste this.

(Oh, and don’t worry if they think that they don’t like eggplant. Because, frankly, everyone who tastes this loves it, even dedicated non-eggplant lovers like my dear friend Dan, who tasted it and said, “Damn. I don’t even like eggplant and that is nothing that I would ever eat, but man is that good.”)

Oh, and one more thing. This super-sexy, amazingly delish dish is vegan.

So, make this and serve it to someone who thinks that they don’t like vegan food, and evangelize on behalf of the delectable comestibles of the plant kingdom!



Imam Bayildi
Ingredients:

8 baby eggplants
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 cups tomato sauce or V-8 juice
1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
4 tablespoons olive oil
5 cups thinly sliced onions
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup golden raisins
3 tablespoons minced fresh garlic
1/2 tablespoon Aleppo pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 cup canned tomatoes or peeled and seeded ripe fresh tomatoes
salt to taste
1/4 cup fresh parsley finely minced
pine nuts, Aleppo pepper flakes and fresh parsley finely minced for garnish

Method:

Wash the eggplants thoroughly and, keeping the stems on them, trim the leafy cap off the tops with a paring knife. Cut a slit lengthwise from the bottom of the eggplant toward the cap without slicing all the way through the fruit. Stop about 3/4 of an inch from the stem of the fruit.

Pour the olive oil, the tomato sauce or V-8 juice, garlic, Aleppo pepper, cumin, thyme and the salt in a big pot. Add the eggplants and bring to a boil over high heat. Turn the heat down and simmer uncovered, turning the eggplants as necessary, until the eggplants are completely softened. If the sauce reduces too much and starts to stick, add water, tomato juice or V-8 juice in small amounts to keep it from sticking.

While the eggplants cook, make the stuffing.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet, and add the onions. Sprinkle the salt over them and cook, stirring, until they are a deep golden color. add the raisins, garlic and Aleppo pepper flakes, as well as the cumin, thyme and pine nuts, and keep cooking, stirring constantly, until the onions are deep brown and fragrant, and the pine nuts are golden. Add the tomatoes, and cook, stirring, until the juices come out and moisten the rest of the stuffing mixture. Taste for salt and adjust seasoning as needed. Remove from heat and put stuffing in bowl to cool until you can safely handle it. When it has cooled, stir in the minced parsley.

When the eggplants are done, remove them from the pot and let them sit to cool until you can handle them.

Spoon about 1/3 of the olive oil off the top of the sauce, and discard or reserve for another purpose. Put the remaining contents of the pot into a blender or food processor and process until a thick, deep red emulsified sauce is formed.

Stir about 1/4 cup of this thick sauce into the stuffing mixture, then put the rest into a squeeze bottle or a small bowl and chill until completely cold.

Stuff about a tablespoon or two of the stuffing mixture into each eggplant by pulling apart the body of the fruit. Close back up and squeeze gently back into shape and set into a sealable container, and then chill the stuffed fruits. Any stuffing that is left should also be sealed up and chilled until cold.

To serve, make a nest out of the reserved stuffing mixture on an individual serving plate, and set one or two eggplants on top of it. Squeeze a zigzag line of the sauce over the top of the fruit, and sprinkle with the reserved minced parsley, Aleppo pepper flakes and pine nuts for a garnish.

Serves 8 as an appetizer or 4 as a main course.

I like to serve this with warm pita bread wedges for sopping up all the good juices and olive oil from the plate.

14 Comments

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  1. I do love eggplant especially with tomato. Thank you for sharing a lovely recipe and a fascinating tale.

    Comment by Kiriel — September 2, 2008 #

  2. there are people who do not like eggplant?! i am flummoxed!

    Comment by dave — September 2, 2008 #

  3. Ohhhhh boy. Will have to buy the stuffable type of eggplants next week and make this. It sounds SO good.

    Comment by Alexis — September 3, 2008 #

  4. This sounds lovely, except I’m allergic to pepper. Would this still be good without the Aleppo Pepper? Some recipes the pepper is vital, and I cannot tell if this is one.

    Comment by Teal Cuttlefish — September 3, 2008 #

  5. Yes, Dave, there are plenty of people in the world who don’t like eggplant. I am married to one of them, although, I am pretty certain he would like this dish if he would try it.

    Teal–are you allergic to black peppercorns or chilies? There is a difference. Aleppo isn’t necessary, and fyi, is a mild type of chili pepper, so if your problem is black pepper, you will be able to eat Aleppo.

    Comment by Barbara — September 4, 2008 #

  6. Hey Barbara, can you give us an idea about how big those baby eggplants are? Your fist? Slightly bigger. I’m keen to try this since I just finished off a batch of homemade baba ganouj I made last weekend. :)

    Comment by Benjamin — September 5, 2008 #

  7. Benjamin–I have big hands for a woman, so they are about the size of a medium-sized guy’s fist. Not a big-guy’s fist, though, those are too big!

    We make baba every day at work. I love it and eat it nearly every day myself. But it is best when it is super-fresh.

    Try my baba recipe that uses pomegranate molasses instead of lemon juice sometime. We make it with lemon at work, but I prefer the Lebanese pomegranate version at home.

    Comment by Barbara — September 5, 2008 #

  8. Golly you sure are fond of pomegranate molasses. :) I’ve found that something that really picks up my baba ganouj is a nice handful of chopped parsley and another handful of chopped green onions. (that is of course assuming you’re making a big batch out of a handful of good sized eggplants)

    Speaking of a love of eggplants is this a similar dish to what is on the cover of Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian?

    http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51TF1H3821L._SL500_.jpg

    It’s the first thing that popped into my head when you described it.

    Comment by Benjamin — September 5, 2008 #

  9. My parents first introduced me to Imam Bayildi when I was only a few years old, at a restaurant called Hodja Nasreddin. And my dad made it several times as the first course for Xmas lunch.

    Comment by Trig — September 8, 2008 #

  10. Thanks! Your post inspired me to make this dish, and I posted about it.

    http://o-scientist.blogspot.com/2008/09/eggplant-and-imams.html

    It was great , thank you!

    Karen

    Comment by Karen (from Our Deer Baby) — September 8, 2008 #

  11. I did make this! The eggplants I got were too big (couldn’t find smaller ones) and so it took a long time to braise them, but it’s still very, very good. The sauces is like red velvet.

    Comment by Alexis — September 9, 2008 #

  12. I love the story behind this dish, but I fear that I might faint over the amount of oil! But as I know just how silkily smooth and gorgeous olive oil makes eggplant, I can understand and approve of it :)

    Beautiful dish!

    Comment by Angela — October 1, 2008 #

  13. I made this for a vegan guest of mine this weekend and it was SUCH a huge hit! I couldn’t get baby eggplants, so I just got a couple big ones, and didn’t stuff per se, just served the stuffing with slices of lovely braised eggplant. The stuffing worked very nicely the next day in pitas–I thought I’d made too much, but it VANISHED. Thank you so much for posting this recipe!

    Comment by Ellen — October 20, 2008 #

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