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 name: One posits that the Iman fainted when he realized how much olive oil his wife used while making it. Or maybe it’s a reference to some potentially psychoactive business going on.
Eggplant is one of the more enigmatic members of the nightshade family, which includes tobacco. Most nightshades are either poisonous, hallucinogenic, medicinal, inflammatory or any combination of the above, depending on the dosage. Eggplant, tomato, potato and pepper are pretty much the only edible species in this family, and they have small amounts of nicotine and other alkaloids, a molecule that’s diversely represented in the nightshade family. Maybe the Imam just 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, Risho goes on a seasonal binge. He brings home armloads of the fat, purple fruit (yes, fruit, just like tomatoes) 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 EVOO, is 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 reading 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 says. Like the Imam, we presume. He lays eggplant halves in a cast iron skillet, blankets them with a onion and tomato mix that’s heavily seasoned with Baharat, then bakes the skillet, covered, until its contents are a savory pudding.
When it’s 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 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.
Makes ½ cup
1 tablespoon whole cumin seed
1 tablespoon peppercorns
1 tablespoon coriander
1 tablespoon cloves
2 tablespoons nutmeg
2 tablespoons paprika
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cardamom
Toast the cumin, peppercorns, coriander, cloves and cardamom in a dry pan. Grind and mix with the other ingredients.
2 lbs. eggplant, trimmed and sliced
in half lengthwise
1 lb. tomatoes cut into ribs (see below)
1 lb. onion cut into half ribs
2 tablespoons Baharat (recipe below)
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon tamarind paste
1 tablespoon dried mint
1 head garlic, chopped coarsely
¼ cup lemon juice
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 snuggly as possible with no empty spaces. If there are lots of gaps, cut up an eggplant to pieces that fit. With a sharply pointed knife, score a crosshatch pattern into the up-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 get cut in half. Cut the tomatoes to 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 it into a caramel-hued mix. Spread this mix evenly atop the eggplant. Bake covered at 350 for two hours. It should be succulent and soft but not collapsed and mushy.