One thing we really love here at Arousing Appetites is when we come across a recipe that not only is delicious but has an incredibly unique story or folk tale behind it.
Imam bayildi is one of those recipes.
The recipe is delicious and very simple to make, as you’ll see below. But more than that, the story of how imam bayildi came to get its name is one of the more charming originations that you might come across.
The Story Behind Imam Bayildi
Translated literally, imam bayildi is a dish meaning “the imam fainted.” There are several different folk tales for why imam bayildi is called what it is, all with varying degrees of humor but all with copious amounts of olive oil.
At the heart of each tale is an imam (a Muslim cleric) and his significant other, a woman who happens to be the daughter of a wealthy olive oil merchant. A large portion of her dowry, or the traditional gifts and contributions brought from the bride’s family to the groom’s, involved a large endowment of some of the finest olive oil around.
As it turned out, the imam’s wife proved to be quite the cook herself. One night, she made for dinner this original version of imam bayildi for her husband using a full bottle of her finest olive oil.
Now here’s where the tales differ… frankly, it get a little wacky. One legend has the imam so enamored with the imam bayildi recipe that he fainted with the first taste of the dish. In another version, the imam is delighted by the recipe and asks his wife what she used to make it. Upon hearing of how much olive oil – this fine and mighty expensive olive oil – was used for the dish, the quickly calculated cost of the meal is what causes our imam to faint.
But in yet another story, the imam cares not about cost and makes it through the first night of imam bayildi un-fainted and unscathed. The imam loves the recipe so much, however, that he asks his wife to make this recipe every single night. After twelve consecutive nights of imam bayildi, his wife does not make it for him on the thirteenth. When asked why, she explains that she no longer has any more of the olive oil from her dowry to cook with. It is this terrible news that ultimately succumbs the imam to his fainting fate.
Whatever the “real” story and origination for the imam bayildi name is, it somehow involves an imam, a ton of olive oil, his wife, and fainting for some odd reason.
About the Recipe
At its core, imam bayildi is very simple recipe. The base of the dish is an eggplant canoe stuffed with a mixture – almost like a ratatouille of sorts – made with onion, garlic, and tomatoes. We did come across variations of imam bayildi that also included minced beef in the stuffing, but this appears to be more an added ingredient than one of the recipe’s core staples.
The making of the stuffing for imam bayildi is fairly straightforward, although there was one particularly interesting tactic we learned for this recipe. When combining the stuffing ingredients together, it’s useful to let the onions sit and “cook” ceviche-style in the acidity of the lemon juice and salt prior to adding the remaining ingredients. This technique help the onions become even softer and borderline melty when the imam bayildi is cooking.
It’s the eggplant canoe, however, that makes this recipe so special. To make the canoe, you cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and hollow out the inside of the eggplant, leaving only a reasonably thick “wall” so that it stays together in the oven.
From there, it’s both practical and presentationally nicer to give the eggplant “zebra stripes.” Peeling parts of the eggplant skin off will help it cook more evenly during the braise, while keeping some of the skin also keeps the eggplant bound together as well. And, of course, the eggplant looks very interesting with its zebra stripes.
Once you have your canoe set and stuffing sautéed, you place the eggplant into a tightly-fitted baking dish with a small layer of water and olive oil in which it “swims” while it braises, and the dish cooks and braises in the oven together for at least an hour.
Our Take on the Recipe
Various recipes either would or wouldn’t pre-fry the eggplant in olive oil, so we looked to test both approaches. Our personal preference – and the one we’d recommend in making this dish – is to go ahead and pre-fry the eggplant because it leaves the end result far softer and with a richer taste to it.
It was in the stuffing where we took the most liberty, however. It appears that a truly traditional imam bayildi – and most recipes that we referenced, including our original reference – omit spices from the stuffing. Instead, the stuffing is supposed to get its flavor from a plethora of fresh herbs like parsley and basil. We also found that, after the onions soak in lemon juice and salt and you combine the stuffing ingredients together, if you give the ingredients a quick sauté with the tomato paste – about 10 minutes – it really helps to bring all the flavors together.
In this recipe, we certainly made abundant use of these herbs and even included others like mint as well, but we also added some spices in small amount as well. Spices like paprika and cinnamon – which are used in other common Turkish dishes – proved to be wonderful additions to our version of the imam bayildi.
Finally, we sought to make use of all leftover ingredients to flavor the braising liquid around the eggplant canoe. Leftover parsley stems or tomato seeds, for example, were added to the water and olive oil and yielded a delicious broth-like liquid to braise the imam bayildi over its hour in the oven.
All in all, imam bayildi is a dish that really delivers on several counts. It’s a delightful recipe to make and to eat, and it’s got a fantastic story to go with it…. regardless of which version you choose.
Have you tried imam bayildi? What’s the story you know of it? Comment below!
- 2 medium-sized eggplants
- ⅓ cup olive oil
- ¼ cup water
- 2 medium white onions, diced
- 6 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tomatoes, peeled, de-seeded and chopped (place seeds to the side)
- 4 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 handful fresh parsley, chopped
- 1 handful fresh dill, chopped
- 1 handful fresh mint, chopped
- 1 red chili pepper, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- Juice of 1 medium lemon (~1/3 cup)
- Salt and pepper
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
- Add the onions, lemon juice, and a pinch of salt into a bowl together. Massage the onions with your hands to work in the lemon juice and salt, and let sit as you tend to other areas of the recipe
- Take one of your eggplants and cut it very carefully along the top by the leaves. There is a small reed in the eggplant in the heart of the leafy part, which is most traditionally kept on in this dish. Cut around the reed and pull off the top of the eggplant and leafy part
- Peel the eggplant into zebra stripes, alternating one part peeled and one part with skin left on
- Cut the eggplant lengthwise in half and begin to spoon out the inner part of the eggplant. Create a cavity that will become the "canoe" for your Imam Bayildi's filling, be sure to leave the "walls" of the eggplant relatively thick
- Repeat for the other eggplant you have
- Heat a skillet on high heat and add a heaping dollop of olive oil. Once the olive oil is nice and hot, fry the eggplant canoe on all sides until it slightly browns. This should take roughly ~5-7 minutes
- Once the eggplant canoes are slightly browned, take it out of the skillet and let sit on a plate with a paper towel in between (to soak up the oil)
- In the bowl with the onions and lemon juice, add the garlic, olive oil (another 2 healthy dollops), tomatoes, and all herbs and spices. Stir very well together
- Using the same skillet that the eggplant canoes were fried in, lightly cook the filling over medium heat for 1-2 minutes, add the tomato paste and continue to cook for 5-8 minutes. Taste test to make sure flavors merge together
- Add the water and remaining olive oil to your baking dish as well as any "remnants" like parsley stalks or tomato seeds. These are fantastic flavorers to the braising liquid
- Place your eggplant canoes in the baking dish
- Overfill the canoes with filling, then cover the baking dish lightly with aluminum foil
- Bake for 30 minutes before uncovering. Once uncovered, let the imam bayildi bake for another 30 minutes (60 minutes total)
- Remove from the oven and let cool. The imam bayildi should be served at room temperature