Imam Bayildi, a dish so good legend goes it once made an imam (holy man) faint of delicious delirium, hence the name. Another Ottoman dish with variations on the theme across the Balkans, Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. A handful of simple ingredients (spring onion, garlic, aubergines, tomatoes, and parsley) but treated beautifully allowing their natural majesty to shine.
The secret here is time. Time to drain the bitterness out of the aubergines with salt. Time to scoop out its delicious flesh and cook it down with onions and garlic until caramelized and sweet. Time to allow the tomatoes to infuse with the aubergine and cook down into an almost jam. Time to roast the aubergine shells with olive oil before they meet their delicious filling. Time to then bake everything down gently and slowly until the aubergine skin is silky and tender. Time.
This dish is close to my heart as it is one of the first dishes my mother taught me. It then became the first dish I cooked for many friends old and new, and for Mr Balkan Kitchen. There is a noble honesty to it – aubergines and tomatoes, with time, and love, transformed into something truly majestic.
This recipe serves 8 as a starter, or 4 as a main.
4-5 tbsp sunflower or olive oil
4-6 spring onions or 1 medium white onion, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
4 medium aubergines
4 large beef tomatoes, finely chopped, or 1 can of tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato puree
1 tsp sugar (optional)
½ a large bunch of fresh parsley (a very generous handful), finely chopped
1/2 tsp dry oregano
Salt + pepper to taste
- Cut the aubergines in half, score the flesh (keeping skin intact) and salt generously. Leave flesh side down in a colander for at least 1 hour – this drains the bitterness from the aubergines. Then rinse the aubergines. Scoop out the flesh (again ensuring you keep the skin intact, so you are left with aubergine “boats”) and cube the flesh.
- Place the aubergine “boats” in a baking dish or a shallow lidded casserole and drizzle with some of the oil. Roast them at 200C (fan) for 20 minutes or until the skins start to soften and you start to see a little colour on the residual flesh.
- Meanwhile, prepare your filling. In a large frying pan, heat the remainder of the oil and soften the onion until translucent. Add your chopped aubergine and cook until the flesh softens and you start to see a little caramelisation. Then add your crushed garlic and cook for no more than 1 minute. Add your chopped (or canned) tomatoes and a little splash water if the mixture is looking too dry. Next add the tomato puree, fresh chopped parsley (reserving some parsley to serve), the oregano, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook the mixture down until it starts to thicken and comes together. If your tomatoes are a little too acidic, you can add a little sugar.
- Next spoon generous amounts of the mixture into the aubergine boats you have par roasted. Use all the mixture and cover the aubergine boats if you need to. Deglaze the pan you have used to cook the aubergine and tomato filling by adding a little more water and pour that into the baking dish. There needs to be enough moisture – it should almost cover all the aubergine boats.
- Cover your baking dish with foil (or if you are using a shallow lidded casserole, with a lid) and bake the filled aubergine boats at 180C (fan) for at least 2 hours, checking and topping up with a little splash of water regularly. Don’t overdo how much water you add, as it should not be too watery. It is ready when you can cut through the aubergine skin easily with a fork. You can uncover your baking dish for the last 10 minutes of baking to obtain a crisp top if you would like.
- Before serving, sprinkle with more fresh chopped parsley, and serve with thick yoghurt, cheese, and bread. Enjoy!