Gypsy Kitchens: Imam Biyaldi

"The priest fainted!" Don't worry, it's just the name of the dish. Imam biyaldi translates literally to this phrase - though, what it really means is braised eggplants stuffed with tomato, onion and garlic. It's the most popular eggplant dish in Turkey, which means that it's one of the most famous dishes in general, as eggplants are a sort of culinary king here. Perhaps it's because religious fasting has historically placed an emphasis on vegetarian dishes that the eggplant is featured as often and with as much variety as it is here. No matter, the imam fainted over this dish and you will, too - both because it is as foolproof as it is delicious. And it is very, very delicious.
The ingredients are simple and classically Turkish: small eggplants, tomato, red chili flakes (which are present on every table top beside the salt and pepper shakers), onion, garlic, thyme and a whole lot of parsley. And olive oil. Explanations for why the priest actually fainted tend to be along the lines of "he found out how much olive oil was used in the dish" or "after asking his wife to make it four days in a row, he discovered their entire stock of olive oil was finished." Most morbid is a theory that it was the fatty oil itself that just knocked the poor man out. The truth is that there's actually no need for an excessive amount in your preparation. We were all set with a full, new bottle and wound up using about a quarter cup in all.
"Stuffed" is a little bit of a loose term. The eggplant isn't scooped out to make room for the filling. Simply split your eggplant in half and cut a slit down the middle of each half. This way, all of the great flavors you'll be piling on top can seep in a little more. If the eggplants you've bought are too round to sit flat and work with, go ahead and cut a slice out of the bottom, flattening its bulbous side.
Something we've noticed a lot here is the skinning of tomatoes. This dish calls for exactly that. Remove the skin, slice and discard the seeds and liquid. Since tomato is going to be the bulk of your filling, one small fruit per half of a small eggplant should work well. Heat up a healthy dose of olive oil in a deep pan or shallow pot (something with a lid) and soften chopped yellow onion and minced garlic. When they're done, add them to your sliced tomatoes. This is the base of your mix. In goes as much chopped, fresh parsley as you can stand, lemon juice, a pinch of fresh thyme (de-stemmed), salt and red pepper flakes. The spicier the better.
After combining the ingredients, strain the mixture. The most efficient way of doing this is to initially mix it up in a colander set in a bowl. Then, you can simply lift the colander, shake and drain the excess liquid out. We decided to separate the juices in order to uses them in the braising later. This way, you don't lose an ounce of the flavor you're working with. Speaking of utilizing every last drop...
That pan you sauteed the onions and garlic in should still be nice and oily. Rub your eggplant halves face down to give them a coating of olive oil. Then, flip them over and fit them snugly, side by side, in the pan. - flat side up. Spoon your mixture on top. Having the eggplant all lined up makes an even smothering simple. When you're all "filled" up, pour the liquid you set aside down into the bottom of the pan, along with about a cup of water. Bring to a simmer, cover and lower heat. After an hour, uncover and cook some more. The eggplant will already be meltingly soft, but it's nice to try to cook off as much remaining liquid as possible. We wound up spooning some out and then cooking for ten minutes "dry." A thin coating of nice brown molasses had formed at the bottom of the pan.
Half of the eggplant dishes we've had in Turkey have come smothered in yogurt. The two flavors work so well together. We decided that the perfect "cooling agent" for our spicy imam biyaldi would be a mint yogurt. All we did was chop up fresh mint and mix it into plain yogurt, resisting the urge to salt. Our first helping of eggplant was served warm, and the cold yogurt melted beautifully onto it. Our second was, more traditionally, served cold. The yogurt was a vibrant new layer on the chilled dish. Either way, it was an ideal complement. Not to be skipped.
The flesh of the eggplant was so tender and pillowy that it made us wonder if that's why the imam really fainted. Here's the recipe. Ingredients aren't measured out because a lot of it should be chosen by personal preference. That's part of the fun and ease of this amazing dish!

Imam Bayildi
small eggplants (a lot less seedy than their bigger relatives)
small tomatoes (one for each half you are making)
yellow onion
fresh parsley (a healthy bunch)
fresh thyme
red pepper flakes
lemon (or unsweetened lemon juice)
fresh mint
plain yogurt (milk, sheep or goat - just not flavored)

- remove stems and halve your small eggplants. cut a slit down the flat side of each half.
- peel, slice and remove seeds from your tomatoes. place in a colander, set in a bowl, and add lemon juice, chopped parsley, red pepper flakes, fresh thyme and salt.
-soften your chopped yellow onion and minced garlic in olive oil. add these to your mixture. combine and strain, but lifting and shaking colander over the bowl.
-set aside liquid.
-rub the flat side of your eggplant on the bottom of your oil-coated pan (previously used for onion and garlic), then place them skin side down, snugly side by side.
-spoon filling over the lined up eggplant.
-add about a cup of water to your liquid and pour into the bottom of your pan.
-bring to simmer, cover, lower heat and cook gently for one hour.
-uncover and cook for a half hour more. at about the halfway mark, spoon out any excess liquid. a thin brown coating should form at the bottom of your pan. you're done!
- Serve cold or hot, but definitely with a mixture of yogurt and chopped mint spooned on top.

It's next to impossible to over or under cook your imam biyaldi. So, just relax and enjoy!

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