Category: Antipasto, Meze, Tapas, and Hors d'Oeuvres
Difficulty: Easy but long cooking time
The imam fainted, imam bayildi, is the name of one of the most famous of Turkish zeytinyağlı dishes (olive oil foods). It may have medieval roots, if we consider that the zeytinyağlı dishes, which are usually eaten cold, fit the prescriptions of the dietetic theory of humors that was the basis for medical theory at that time. It was customary to eat cold and moist foods in the summer during medieval times because that counteracted the hot dry humor of summer that caused an increase in bile. (See Note).
Imam bayildi is an eggplant slashed down the middle and stuffed with onions, garlic, and tomatoes and then simmered in olive oil to cover. There are several apocryphal stories about the origins of the dish. The imam (Muslim prayer leader) fainted or swooned when he tasted how good it was; that the imam fainted when he saw how much expensive olive oil was used; that the imam was delighted when a shopkeeper's wife was required to quickly prepare a dish for the imam's unexpected visit. A Turkish proverb casts light on another interpretation: Imam evinden ash, olu gozunden yash cikmaz (No food is likely to come out of the imam's house and no tears from a corpse). Perhaps the meaning is that the stingy imam, when presented with a dish so generous, certainly was delighted, or fainted from delight.
[photo: Clifford A. Wright]
Yield: Makes 6 servings
Preparation Time: 1:45 hours
1. Peel off strips of the eggplant skin at 1-inch intervals to make a stripped effect. Cut off the stem portion, then cut each eggplant in half lengthwise. Make a deep lengthwise slit along the flesh side of the eggplant, making sure you don't puncture the skin. Cut a very small portion of the skin side of the eggplant to make a flat section so the eggplant can sit correctly in the skillet later. Salt the flesh and set aside, flesh side down, on some paper towels for 30 minutes to leach the eggplant of its bitter juices. Dry with paper towels.
2. In a large skillet, heat 1/ 4 cup of the olive oil over high heat and once it's smoking, fry the eggplant, flesh side down, until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Remove from the skillet to drain on some paper towels.
3. In the same skillet you cooked the eggplant, add the remaining oil and heat over medium-high heat, then cook the onion and garlic until soft and yellow, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently so the garlic doesn't burn. Transfer the onions to a medium-size bowl and mix well with the tomatoes, parsley, dill, sugar, salt to taste, and a few tablespoons of the cooking oil.
4. Arrange the eggplant halves in a large skillet or casserole with the slit side up. Gently open the slit so that they can accommodate as much of the stuffing as possible. Season the eggplant with salt, then stuff each one so that the stuffing fills the slits and is spread to cover all the flesh. Sprinkle the lemon juice over the eggplant. Pour any remaining sauce or juices, along with the water, into the skillet, cover, and cook over low heat until the eggplant is soft, about 50 minutes, adding water to the skillet if it is getting too dry. Let the eggplants cool in the skillet and serve whole at room temperature.
Note: Arsel, Semahat, dir. Timeless Tastes: Turkish Culinary Culture. Istanbul: Divan, 1996, p. 210.