Imam Bayildi: The Story Behind the Turkish Eggplant Recipe

Posted by in Food

Imam Bayildi uses lots of olive oil

Imam Bayildi uses lots of olive oil

By Justin

Those that learn from cooking have the pleasure of repeating it.

The other day I was driving around with my wife Kemba and as we were approaching the store where we buy olive oil, she mentioned that we were running low again.  She said it as if it would surprise me, like, “I forgot to tell you something that I know will startle you.  Brace yourself.  We need to buy more olive oil.”

I like to get the large bottles of olive oil and I’m a bit picky about what kind.  Italian extra virgin olive oil is OK, in a pinch, but I much prefer olive oil that has a strong olive flavor, like they make in Spain, or — if I can get it — olive oil made in Greece.

My wife was upset that I wasn’t surprised.  Her look said, “Why aren’t you shocked that we went through that enormous bottle of olive oil?”

“Well, we’ve been eating a lot of eggplant.”  My wife loves eggplant.  When we met, she assured me that she hated eggplant.  And she still won’t eat it unless I cook it for her. The secret is that when I cook eggplant I like to slice it, salt it, and let it sit on the counter.  When the bitter juices start seeping out, I wipe the slices off and, if I have time, I put them in a plastic container in the fridge where even more bitter juices come out.

So now if there’s an eggplant in the house, I hear about it every day.  At first there’s subtle pestering.  “Maybe we can have eggplant for dinner tonight.”  Then come the threats.  “If you don’t cook this, it’s going to go bad soon.”  Then comes the flat out begging.  “Pleeeease make eggplant tonight.”  It doesn’t matter how I decide to make it.  I could bread it, fry it, and serve it with fra diavolo or primavera sauce.  I could sauté it in the wok, add garlic sauce, and serve it over brown rice.  I could make ratatouille or babaganoush or zaalouk.

But she didn’t understand what cooking eggplant had to do with olive oil usage.  “You know… cooking eggplant uses up a lot of olive oil.  You remember the story of Imam Bayildi?”  A blank look, she didn’t know that story.

“Well, Imam Bayildi is a Turkish dish, eggplant stuffed with onions, parsley, tomatoes, and… I don’t know, whatever other vegetables and nuts that you might find in a Turkish refrigerator.  You bake a couple of them in a dish with lime juice and olive oil.  The story goes that it was invented by the daughter of an olive oil merchant who married an imam.  He thought the dish was so delicious that he fainted on the spot.  And that is where the dish gets its name.  In Turkish, Imam Bayildi means, the imam fainted.

“But there’s another version of the story.  Some people say that when the woman married the imam, her father the olive oil merchant, gave the couple, as a wedding gift, a fortune in the most precious olive oil he had in all his stores.  After the wedding festivities — and there are quite a bit, you know, a party before the wedding, a party after the wedding, a party after consummating the wedding, party after party — they settle down into married life.  And she invents this stuffed eggplant dish for her husband, who absolutely loves it.  So he asks for it every night.  And she makes it every night.  And then one night shortly thereafter he asks for it but she can’t make it because they’re out of olive oil.  And the imam thought of the amazing fortune in olive oil, how delicious it was, how expensive it was, how you have to use so much of it cooking eggplant, how it was all gone, and that was when he fainted dead away.”

My wife thought this story was tremendously entertaining and asked me to share here.  As I pulled into the store parking lot I said, “You do realize, don’t you, that part of the reason you liked that story so much is that we now find ourselves in the very same situation, in that you keep asking me to make eggplant, and you can’t believe we’ve gone through so much olive oil.”

The next time I bought eggplants I made her Imam Bayildi, and she was really sad when we had eaten it all.

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