What is imam bayildi?
Imam bayildi is a Turkish dish of eggplants cooked in olive oil, and stuffed with tomatoes, onions, peppers and herbs & spices. This classic vegan mezze is also popular throughout Western Asia, the Balkan Peninsula and the Middle East.
What is the origin of imam bayildi?
Originating from the Ottoman Empire, imam bayildi is a traditional Turkish staple. As with many other traditional recipes, it isn’t always entirely clear when it originated but it is thought to have been around the 17th century.
How did imam bayildi get its name?
The name, imam bayildi, means the “imam fainted”. There are a variety of Turkish folk tales depicting how the dish got its name. The most popular being that a Turkish imam married the daughter of a wealthy olive oil merchant. On their wedding day, her father gifted them with 12 jars of olive oil.
For twelve nights the imam found his favorite meal on the table but on the thirteenth night there was no eggplant dish. Shocked and exasperated, the imam demanded an explanation. His loving wife told him that she could not make any more of his treasured food as there was no more olive oil. Upon hearing this, the imam fainted.
Another story describes how an imam was served such wonderful, flavorful food, that while he was reveling at the sheer glory of the fine cuisine, he fainted.
In yet another explanation, the imam faints when he discovers exactly how much olive oil is used.
There are one or two more tales telling how a husband fainted at the cost of the ingredients, and other variations surrounding the expense of the meal. Some believe this is the most plausible reason as to why the imam fainted, given the living expenses at the time of the meal’s origin.
Imam bayildi in other parts of the world
Although this recipe is native to Turkey, imam bayildi can be found in a vast array of countries across the world, particularly in the former Ottoman Empire.
Throughout Greece, Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Israel imam bayildi is more commonly known as imám baïlntí (ιμάμ μπαϊλντί). That said, some areas within these regions still refer to it as its lesser-known title, melitzánes imam (μελιτζάνες ιμάμ), which means imam’s aubergines. Across the Arab world, imam bayildi is called me’iimam biaylidi (μεإمام بايلدي).
Over the course of time, many have developed this eggplant mezze to suit their own preferred taste. Whilst maintaining the original recipe, various ingredients have been added, such as ground beef, cinnamon, and feta cheese.
Along with the variation in ingredients that have been added to create this mouthwatering culinary delight, the structure has also been adapted in some recipes to lean toward a lasagne-style imam bayildi. For example, moussaka. The pasta sheets are replaced with slices of eggplant, and the sauce becomes the layers in between.
How to make imam bayildi
Some people advocate baking the eggplant first, and then frying, whilst others prefer to bake the eggplant in the oven completely. The traditional way is to poach in olive oil.
It is important to remember to add a sugar to the filling as this will balance out the acidity from the tomatoes.
Some variations of the recipe use herbs such as thyme, oregano and parsley, whereas others don’t. The same goes for spices. This dish can be made with paprika and cumin, or little to no spice at all.
For the best possible dining experience, imam bayildi is best served at room temperature the day after it has been cooked. It is usually accompanied by rice and yoghurt or as part of a mezze.
Eggplants in Turkish Cuisine
The eggplant, also known as aubergine in France and the United Kingdom, melanzane in Italy, brinjal in India, and patlican in Turkey, is grown all over the world. It is a plant species from the nightshade family, Solanaceae. Other nightshades include tomatoes, bell peppers, chillies, tomatillos, physalis, potatoes, goji berries and huckleberries.
The absorbent, sponge-like flesh of the eggplant makes it the ideal vegetable to soak up all the flavors of the other ingredients in a dish.
Turkish cuisine throughout the whole country varies dependent upon the area. Bursa, Istanbul, Izmir and the remaining Asia Minor regions’ diet derives from the era of the Ottoman court cuisine. Rice is a preferred side dish, as opposed to bulgur. The food isn’t as heavily spiced as in other areas of the country, and due to the wider availability of vegetables, stews and stewed vegetables, such as this imam bayildi recipe, are popular feasts.
Alongside imam bayildi, there are a number of other eggplant-based recipes prominent across Turkey such as baba ghanoush, or kyopolou, which is a creamy dip (sometimes referred to as a salad), made from charred eggplant, bell peppers and tomatoes cooked with garlic and olive oil. Turkish eggplant with yogurt (patlicanly yogurtlama) is another popular dish in Turkey, and it is the perfect appetizer for a Turkish banquet.
The eggplant is a staple across Turkey due to its availability, and how easy it is to grow. It has been said that Turkish people have over 100 different recipes for this versatile vegetable.
Although people classify eggplants as a vegetable across the globe, their botanical definition classes them as a berry.
- 4 medium eggplants
- 1 cup olive oil
- 2 large onions , thinly sliced
- 2 Turkish red peppers (or red bell peppers), cored and diced
- 4 cloves garlic , peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 5 tomatoes , diced
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 1 sprig thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- Baking dish 8x12 inches / 20x30cm
- Peel half of each eggplant lengthwise.
- Using a sharp knife, starting 1 inch (2,5 cm) from the top of each eggplant, cut a slit down to 1 inch (2,5cm) before the bottom. Be careful not to cut all the way through to the other side.
- Place half of the oil in a pan, and gently fry the eggplants over a medium heat for 15 minutes, turning occasionally, so they brown evenly.
- Remove from the pan, and place, peeled side up, in an ovenproof baking dish (8x12 inches / 20x30cm). Set aside to cool.
- Add the olive oil to the pan, reduce the heat slightly, and fry the onions and peppers for about 10 minutes, stirring often.
- Stir in the garlic, cumin, and paprika, and continue to cook for another minute or so.
- Add the tomatoes, sugar, thyme, and bay leaf. Stir well. Taste, and season with salt and pepper.
- Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and simmer for 30 minutes. Once the sauce is cooked, remove the thyme and bay leaf.
Pre-heat your oven to 350 F (180°C).
- Gently ease apart the eggplants along the slits, and fill with the sauce. It doesn’t matter if it overflows a little. Drizzle any remaining oil over the top.
- Bake in the center of the oven for around 35 minutes, then remove from the oven, and set aside to cool.
- Finish with a sprinkling of fresh parsley.
- Serve at room temperature with pilaf rice or bulgur, yogurt and traditional bread.