‘The Priest Fainted’ (Braised Eggplant Stuffed with Peppers and Tomatoes)

İmam Bayildi

Why did this dish (first discussed in an 1844 cookbook) make the priest faint? Some say it was with pleasure, some say because of the extravagant amount of oil in it and some say because it used up every ingredient in his pantry. The story I like comes from Moveable Feasts: The History, Science and Lore of Food, where Gregory McNamee says the imam married the daughter of an olive oil seller. Every day after the wedding she made him an eggplant dish cooked in her father’s olive oil. On the thirteenth day the oil ran out and her husband collapsed in shock.

Most Turkish cooks would start this dish by frying the eggplant, but the famous Istanbul chef Şemsa Denizsel of Kantin showed me what she says is the original method—steaming the eggplants in a pot with the stuffing mixture before filling them. This makes them a lot lighter, and more delicious. With this recipe, the imam might have lasted a few more days.

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Ingredients

  • 4 tomatoes
  • 25 flat-leaf (Italian) parsley leaves
  • 4 onions
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 4 long eggplants (aubergines)
  • 150 ml (5 fl oz) olive oil, plus extra for greasing
  • 16 garlic cloves, whole and peeled
  • 1 red bullhorn pepper (or ½ large red capsicum/pepper)

Method

Score a shallow cross in the base of the tomatoes, then transfer to a heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Leave for 30 seconds, then plunge in cold water and peel the skin away from the cross. Cut the tomatoes in half and scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon. Roughly chop.

Finely chop the parsley leaves. Put the onions, tomato, parsley, salt and sugar in a large saucepan and knead the mixture for 2 minutes.

Slice three strips off the skin of each eggplant, starting about 2 cm (about 1 in) below the top and finishing 2 cm (about 1 inch) above the base. The eggplants should now look like they’re wearing striped pyjamas. Put them on top of the mixture. Pour in the olive oil and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes, with the lid on. Add the garlic cloves and simmer for another 20 minutes.

Remove the eggplants from the pan and slit lengthways, starting 2 cm (¾ in) from the tip and finishing 2 cm (¾ in) from the base. With the slit facing upwards, use the back of a tablespoon to push the slit open and give the eggplant a canoe shape. Brush a baking tray with oil. Put the eggplant boats into the greased tray. Remove the garlic cloves from the tray and set aside. Spoon the onion mixture from the pan into each eggplant.

Remove the stalk and seeds from the pepper and cut into four slices, lengthways. Place one slice of pepper and four garlic cloves on top of each canoe. Spoon the remaining sauce over the top, then set aside until you’re ready to serve.

Serve the İmam bayıldı at room temperature, or do what I do in my restaurant and reheat them in a 180°C (350°F/Gas 4) oven for 10 minutes.