I have submitted this recipe to the UNSW Union's International Cookbook Competition.

Imam bayeldi: The Imam fainted.

This Turkish meal has a legendary origin. The most popular version of the tale is told like this: the Imam's new bride was the daughter of an olive oil merchant, and her dowry contained twelve over-sized jugs of purest olive oil. She had a talent for cooking, and she prepared many special dishes for her new husband. One night, she cooked a dish of eggplant baked in olive oil, and the Imam enjoyed it so much that he asked her to cook it every night. For twelve days, she prepared the eggplant dish, but on the thirteenth, it was missing.

"My dear wife," the Imam asked, "Where is the dish that you usually cook for me?"
"I couldn't make it tonight," she replied, "because we ran out of olive oil."

On hearing this, the Imam fainted.

Imam bayeldi is a testament to the power of simple ingredients and slow cooking. The three main ingredients - eggplant, tomato and onion - are used in abundance with a healthy amount of olive oil. It's a perfect side-dish for lamb or any Mediterranean meal, and it makes a great entrée or simple lunch. It can be stored in the fridge or freezer.

It's not a hard dish to make, but it takes time. All up, this dish takes roughly two hours from start to finish, but a lot of this time is spent in simmering or baking. Make it in the afternoon. Invite some friends over and cook it together. Make it on a rainy Sunday and curl up with a book while it simmers.

If I'm feeling organised, or preparing for a dinner party, I like to make this dish the afternoon before, and let the flavours infuse overnight.

Two medium eggplants
Four medium brown onions
16 medium-sized tomatoes (ideally, choose 8 Roma tomatoes and 8 vine tomatoes)
3/4 cup demerara sugar (that is, raw sugar)
A pinch of salt
  1. Smear the bottom of a baking dish (preferably ceramic) with olive oil. This should produce a nice, thick coat along the bottom. For a large baking dish, about two tablespoons should do.

  2. Cut the stalks from the eggplants. Quarter the eggplant lengthwise and then slice it into pieces roughly 1/8th of an inch thick. With the skin-side up, spread the pieces across the bottom of the baking dish like a flan (imagine a stack of dominoes that has been knocked over). Splash the eggplant with about half a cup of olive oil, and let it soak while you prepare the other ingredients.

  3. Dice the onions and the tomatoes into cubes (roughly the size of the top joint of your thumb).

  4. Sweat the onions in a large frying pan (the deeper, the better!) with a liberal splash of olive oil until they just become translucent. Stir in two tablespoons of the sugar and let it caramelize for a minute.

  5. Add the tomatoes and the sugar to the pan and cook over a medium heat until most of the juices are rendered. Stir it every few minutes. This process takes about 10 minutes. The mixture should be soup-like, and submerged in its own juices.

  6. Sprinkle a pinch of salt over the mixture. Simmer the mixture over a medium-low heat, so that it bubbles but doesn't sizzle. Let it reduce until it becomes thick, sticky, and mostly liquidless. This will take about 40 minutes.

  7. Spread the tomato and onion mixture over the eggplant, and cook in a medium-hot oven (180ºC or 350ºF) for an hour.

If you intend to serve the dish straight away, turn the heat up (250ºC or 400ºF) for fifteen minutes, so that the top becomes dark and crusty.

If you have planned ahead, let the imam bayeldi sit overnight. Leave it in the baking dish, cover it tightly in plastic wrap and store it in the fridge, or let it stay in the cooling oven until the morning. Before serving, place it in a hot oven (250ºC or 400ºF) for fifteen minutes.

Imam bayeldi is perfect with unleavened bread and hummus, or on thick, crusty bread.

  • Add two cloves of crushed garlic to the pan just before you add the tomatoes. The garlic makes the dish much more savory (true to form of the original Turkish dish). Personally, I prefer the slight sweetness of the dish without the sharpness of the garlic. Sprinkle lemon juice over the imam bayeldi before serving.
  • Instead of slicing the eggplant, make three lengthwise cuts along the eggplant, and stuff the openings with the tomato and onion mixture. Drizzle the whole eggplant with olive oil and bake it for an hour.
  • Add a cup of chopped parsley to the tomato and onion mixture as it starts to simmer. Continental or flat-leaf parsley is perfect for this.

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