It’s three weeks since I was in wonderful Istanbul, walking through markets full of gorgeous ripe and perfect fruits and vegetables; spices piled high, their aroma hanging in the air, singing of the exotic; fresh pomegranate juice squeezed to order and sold on stalls on the edge of roads. Fisherman hanging over the edge of the Galata Bridge with their rods dangling expectantly. The call the prayer echoing across the city from early morning and at various times during the day; a sound I always love and which speaks instantly of being far from home. And then, of course, there is the food. The most glorious food: rich with deep flavours; enticingly exotic; desserts like sticky, sweet baklava; Turkish delight accompanying thick strong coffee. It is food I love; food that excites me. I loved it before I went to Turkey, seeking out restaurants in London; but there in Istanbul it seems at home, absolutely right, as you pass stalls abundant with glossy, purple aubergines, large ripe tomatoes, walnuts nestling in their shells and pomegranates, their thick skins hiding the red jewels inside.
These form the base of Turkish cooking – it’s hard to avoid an aubergine or tomato, but since I love both, then for me it’s only a delight. And no dish is more famous than Imam Bayildi – meaning, ‘the Imam fainted’ – a traditional Ottoman recipe. It’s not exactly clear why the Imam fainted but it’s speculated that it was due to the large amount of olive oil used in the dish. Was he shocked at the cost or merely bowled over by the wonderful taste? Well, fainting is going a little far but there’s no doubt that this is a most delicious dish that might just take your breath away at first bite. I ate it on my first day in Istanbul, choosing just a couple of meze – starters – for lunch. As well as the Imam Bayildi I had a yogurt and spinach dish. I decided to re-create them both this evening. The yogurt dish I’ll describe tomorrow but here is the aubergine dish first.
First of all prepare the filling. For one aubergine, finely slice a small onion; skin and chop 1 large tomato; finely chop 1 garlic clove and a small bunch of fresh parsley. Put them all into a bowl with some salt and pepper, 1/4 teaspoon dried dill and a little olive oil. Mix together well.
Now prepare the aubergine. Cover the bottom of a frying pan with a thin layer of olive oil and heat, adding the aubergine whole. Turn it carefully to cook just a little on all sides then remove.
Take a sharp knife and cafefully cut through the middle but not right the way through – or your stuffing will leak out of the bottom. The slight cooking will have softened the aubergine enough for you to gently pull the hole apart ready for stuffing. Now push all the stuffing in. I thought there was too much but in the end managed to get the entire amount in. Put the aubergine in a tall pan with a lid. Pour the remaining oil round and then add a little water. Sprinkle over 1 teaspoon sugar.
Heat until the oil and water start to bubble and then lower the heat and put the lid on. Leave to simmer for about an hour, basting with the oil from time to time, until the aubergine is nicely soft and cooked through. At the end, remove the lid and let the oil and water reduce down if there’s still quite a bit. Transfer the aubergine to a dish and spoon some of the remaining oil over the top.
Imam Bayildi is usually served cold but due to my beginning cooking quite late, I ate it still slightly warm. However you eat it, it’s very, very delicious. I ate it for supper with the spinach and yogurt dish – Ispanak Ezmesi – and some bread.
I didn’t have Turkish pide – I think I’d have to make it or chase up to Tas Pide in central London – and I considered just pitta bread but ended up buying some fougasse from Paul earlier in the day, which went well. It was a gorgeous supper. These are both meze dishes really, so you could serve them as starters before a main course. Or as lunchtime snacks. However you eat them, they are just gorgeous and you’ll invite a little bit of exotic Istanbul into your home too.