Imam bayildi is an eggplant dish named for its ability to separate a man from his consciousness. The Turkish phrase means, “The imam fainted,” and the implication is that the decadent and aromatic experience of eating this glorious dish knocked the imam out cold.
There are other theories for the origin of the dish’s name, such as that the imam fainted when he realized how much olive oil his wife used to make it. Or maybe it’s a reference to some potentially psychoactive business going on. Eggplants are one of the more enigmatic members of the already enigmatic nightshade family, which includes tobacco. Most nightshades are either poisonous, hallucinogenic, medicinal, inflammatory or any combination of the above, depending on the dosage. Eggplants, tomatoes, potatoes and peppers are pretty much the only edible species in this family, and they have small amounts of nicotine and other alkaloids, a type of molecule that’s diversely represented in the nightshade family. While tomatoes, potatoes and peppers all come from the Americas, the enigmatic eggplant was domesticated in Asia. So, maybe the imam got a weird eggplant?
My friend Ray Risho is a Syrian-American chef, restaurateur and lifelong scholar of Old World cuisines. He grew up in an eggplant-friendly household in 1950s Providence, Rhode Island, and to this day, during the peak eggplant months of late summer and early fall, he goes on a seasonal binge. He brings home armloads of the classic fat, purple eggplant from the farmers market and prepares them in various ancient, succulent, fragrant ways. Risho’s rendition of imam bayildi will make you bliss out, if not pass out.
The trick, aside from unholy amounts of extra virgin olive oil, is to use a baharat spice blend. Being a black belt in spice blending, Risho mixes his own, but it’s available online and in most Middle Eastern stores. When purchasing baharat or any spice mix, Risho advises, read the ingredient label carefully. You only want the spices — no flour, salt, sugar, oil or any other filler that would dilute the impact. You can add salt later.
“The idea is to get the onions, tomatoes and eggplant to melt,” Risho said. Like the imam, we presume. He lays eggplant halves in a cast iron skillet, blankets them with an onion-and-tomato mix that’s heavily seasoned with baharat, and then bakes the skillet, covered, until its contents are a savory pudding.
When the dish is done, the kitchen will fill with baharat aerosol, and you will have to restrain yourself to let it cool to a reasonable temperature so you don’t burn your mouth. Room temperature or slightly warm is perfect. My mom hung onto consciousness but ate so much that she got heartburn. Me, if I had passed out and woken up on the floor, it wouldn’t have surprised me in the least. The only surprise would have been if I’d stopped chewing.
The baharat spices are magical in this dish, pulling it together into a tightly woven yet luxuriously soft magic carpet ride of a meal.
Slice off a thin piece of skin on the underside of each eggplant half so it sits flat. Fill a cast iron pan or other baking dish with eggplant halves, trimming as necessary so they fit in the pan as snugly as possible with no empty spaces. If there are lots of gaps, cut an eggplant into pieces that fit. With a sharp-point knife, score a crosshatch pattern into the upward-facing sides of the eggplants, about a quarter-inch deep, so the cut halves look like they have been overlaid with graph paper.
To make onion ribs, cut an unpeeled onion in half from end to end and lay one of the halves flat-side down. Slice off both ends, slip off the skin and slice thinly along the axis between the two trimmed ends. Finally, make one slice across the middle, 90 degrees from the others, so all the ribs are cut in half. Cut the tomatoes into ribs, but don’t cut them in half.
Combine the tomatoes and onions. Add the salt, olive oil, baharat powder, lemon juice, garlic, mint and tamarind syrup, then stir them into a caramel-hued mix. Spread this mix evenly atop the eggplant. Bake, covered, at 350 degrees for two hours. It should be succulent and soft but not collapsed and mushy.
Imam bayildi is hardly the only dish this mix will spice up. It’s used in dishes throughout the Mediterranean and Arabian Peninsula.
Makes 1/2 cup
Toast the cumin, peppercorn, coriander, cloves and cardamom in a dry pan. Grind and mix with the other ingredients.
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