Imam Bayildi: A Knockout Eggplant Dish

The fragrant Turkish eggplant dish is named for its ability to separate a man from his consciousness.
Imam Bayildi: A Knockout Eggplant Dish
Imam bayildi is an eggplant dish named for its ability to separate a man from his consciousness. (AS Foodstudio/Shutterstock)

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, such as that the imam fainted when he realized how much olive oil his wife used to make 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 type of molecule that’s diversely represented in the nightshade family. While tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers all come from the Americas, the enigmatic eggplant was domesticated in Asia. So maybe the imam 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, Mr. Risho goes on a seasonal binge. He brings home armloads of the classic fat, purple eggplant 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 secret to a blissful imam bayildi dish is the baharat spice blend. (Mahmut Sabagh/Shutterstock)
The secret to a blissful imam bayildi dish is the baharat spice blend. (Mahmut Sabagh/Shutterstock)

The trick, aside from unholy amounts of extra-virgin olive oil, is the baharat spice blend. Being a black belt in spice blending, Mr. Risho mixes his own, but it’s available online and in most Middle Eastern stores. When purchasing baharat or any spice mix, Mr. 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,” Mr. Risho said. Like the imam, we presume. He lays eggplant halves in a cast iron skillet, blankets them with an 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 that you don’t burn your mouth. Room temperature or slightly warm is perfect. My mom hung on to consciousness but ate so much that 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.

Imam Bayildi

The baharat spices are magical in imam bayildi, pulling it together into a tightly woven yet luxuriously soft, magic carpet ride of a meal.
Serves 6
  • 2 pounds eggplant, trimmed and sliced in half lengthwise
  • 1 pound tomatoes cut into ribs (see below)
  • 1 pound 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
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
Slice off a thin piece of skin on the underside of each eggplant half so that it sits flat. Fill a cast iron pan or other baking dish with eggplant halves, trimming as necessary so that 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 that the cut halves look like they’ve 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 that all the ribs get cut in half. Cut the tomatoes into 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 degrees F for 2 hours. It should be succulent and soft but not collapsed and mushy.


Imam bayildi is hardly the only dish this mix will spice up. It’s used in dishes throughout the Mediterranean and the Arabian Peninsula.
Makes 1/2 cup
  • 1 tablespoon whole cumin seed
  • 1 tablespoon peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon coriander
  • 1 tablespoon cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom
  • 2 tablespoons nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Toast the cumin, peppercorns, coriander, cloves, and cardamom in a dry pan. Grind and mix with the other ingredients.
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