İmam bayıldı is an entirely vegetarian, even vegan dish and one frequently confused with Karnıyarık, that is another aubergine stuffed dish that is stuffed with a mix of sautéed chopped onions, garlic, black pepper, tomatoes, optional green pepper, parsley and ground meat.
İmam bayıldı is essentially a very simple dish, consisting of only aubergine, tomato, garlic, onion and olive oil. The beauty of the dish lies in the quality of the ingredients, and I, for one will be making this in Egypt this summer as the quality and fragrance of the tomatoes is superlative, even if they won’t win any prizes for looks. In the meantime, Tesco ‘finest’ cherry tomatoes from Saveco, is the best answer in sunny Kuwait unless you grow your own.
There are many stories on why the İmam or priest fainted, that range from him swooning with pleasure at the flavour, to him fainting at the price of the oil and another story being that his daughter’s dowry was in barrels of olive oil and the İmam loved the dish so much he insisted it be cooked over and over. When the oil ran out, he fainted. Either way you wish to interpret the story, it is worthwhile to use a good quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Anyone travelling to the Mediterranean this summer, is well advised to seek out the good stuff.
Firstly pre-heat the oven to 300 degrees and slice 2 fat aubergines lengthwise and lay in a roasting tin flesh side up (re as many as fit in your roasting tin), make some incisions with a knife, but avoid cutting all the way through, then sprinkle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place in the oven and leave uncovered for 30 to 40 minutes, allowing the flesh to cook through. Once cooked through (test by seeing how easily a knife or fork pierces the flesh without using pressure) take out of oven and allow to cool. At this stage the aubergine shells will be too hot to handle to scoop out the flesh!
Fry a large brown finely chopped onion in olive oil until translucent and add some chopped garlic. I love garlic and prefer to be generous, though personal tastes differ. Before the garlic catches and burns (to avoid a bitter taste), add the tomatoes, lightly toasted pine nuts, salt, pepper and oregano or basil. At this stage I also add Lee & Perrins’ (The original) Worcestershire Sauce. This contains many ingredients that aid the cooking process and boosts the peppery taste. Vegans will wish to omit this step as it contains some small amount of anchovy. If one is in the mood or inclination, at this stage one could also add some roasted pepper flesh and coriander.
After bring to almost a boil, reduce the heat and scoop out the aubergine flesh from the cooled shells and add to the tomato salsa. Leave any stubborn bits of aubergine still clinging to the skin. Firstly we want to keep the shells intact and secondly that flesh will cook through when baked. The scooped flesh we put with the salsa and combine over a medium high heat for five minutes and then spoon the mixture into the shells, don’t be afraid of any spillage, the sauce will stop the skin from burning in any case. Cover with foil and bake at 300 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes. Remove foil and let the top grill for five minutes more. You might wish to add some breadcrumbs at this stage to achieve a thin crust and serve with a light drizzle of olive oil. (Grade A+ EVOO of course!)
Above you have the traditional ‘classic’ İmam bayıldı. In truth it is a dish that holds its own in its simplicity, especially if one is a position to have grade ‘A’ fresh vegetables and the equivalent olive oil. Like any stuffed vegetable dish, additions can be made depending on taste and appetite. Chopped olives of course can work well as the olive is being celebrated here and would be a welcome addition in the salsa.
Off the vegan trail, sprinkles of parmesan cheese can add a piquancy to the dish. If one added some extra chilli to the salsa a topping of yoghurt would add a contrast. If one was insistent on adding meat, I would opt for smoked chicken or turkey breast with the salsa. In the author’s opinion if one is going down the beef route one may as well simply opt for cooking Karnıyarık as mentioned in the opening paragraph.
One certainty is that the concept of the dish opens up a whole canvas of possibilities that everyone can adapt to their own taste.