Written correctly in Turkish, the name of this dish is imambayıldı, where each of the two dotless “i” are pronounced like the letter “e” in “herbs”. Translated, it means “the imam fainted” and there are several versions about why this happened. One says that when it was first prepared for the imam by his wife, this dish was so delicious that the pleasure he felt simply knocked him unconscious. Another, more elaborate story, says that when the same imam married the woman, her dowry was a hefty supply of the most exquisite olive oil. On their first night together, she cooked him this meal. He loved it so much that he couldn’t eat anything else. After several days of strict imambayildi diet, the supplies of the olive oil, which was one of the main ingredients, ended. Realizing that he lost the precious dowry of his wife, the imam fainted.
By far it must be clear that this dish is extremely delicious but you can probably guess from the title that I’m not going to follow the original recipe. So if you are a culinary purist, leave this site immediately and never come back. The rest of you should know that the method of preparation of imambayildi can differ significantly from region to region. It has been prepared for ages in the Ottoman Empire, from where it probably spread as far west as France, turning into the famous Provencal ratatouille. Or perhaps it was the other way around, who knows.
In Bulgaria, where olives aren’t grown, people use sunflower oil instead. I stick to this tradition. You can make your own choice but please don’t go using olive oil just out of culinary snobbery. It won’t make you a better person. Also, my eggplants are not stuffed but simply sliced and I add some zucchini as well, just for flavor. The moment when I definitely break with the Bulgarian tradition is when I make the sauce, which is inspired by Italian cuisine and my favorite pasta.
Main: eggplants, zucchini, sunflower oil;
Sauce: garlic, tomatoes, sugar, salt, fresh basil leaves, black pepper.
Let the Frying Begin
Cut the eggplants and the zucchini in thin slices. Heat up the oil in a deep pan. Keep in mind that the eggplants will soak in a lot of oil, so be generous and also be prepared to add more if necessary. There is no need to deep fry them but make sure the base of the pot is always well covered, otherwise frying will soon turn to roasting. Turn each slice occasionally, so it can fry uniformly on both sides. It’s important to start with the eggplants first and fry the zucchini last, since their juices will turn the oil slightly green and that might interfere with the golden color of the eggplants. Frying the zucchini can be slightly more annoying, since by nature they contain a lot of water, which soon will start to spatter all around, carrying droplets of hot oil with it. This is why it’s important to use a pan which is deep.
After each slice is fried, leave it aside in a dish. You can sprinkle a little bit of salt over each batch.
Let’s Make the Sauce
The pomodoro semplice sauce is very easy to make. Translated from Italian it actually means simple tomato sauce. However, with the risk to cause anger and public protests on the streets of every major city in Italy, my recipe contains a little twist to it.
First, let’s prepare the ingredients. Peel a bulb of garlic, then crush each piece with a flat spoon or a knife. Leave it aside and start chopping the tomatoes in little pieces. After you are done with everything, heat up a pan on medium fire and sprinkle a table spoon of sugar on the bottom. Wait until it melts and just when it’s about to turn golden, lower the fire, throw in the crushed garlic and stir well, then add a little bit of oil and stir again for several seconds. Be careful when you fry garlic, especially caramelized one, because it burns quickly and it turns bitter. According to my experience, the optimal time is about 10-15 seconds. This is why it’s important to have your tomatoes already chopped and ready. Throw them in and the frying will turn to cooking. Cover and leave to simmer for about 15-20 minutes until the tomatoes get really soft.
When the sauce is ready, remove it from the fire and throw in the fried eggplants and zucchinis, along with freshly chopped basil leaves and the black pepper. Stir gently with a large spoon and leave it covered to cool down.
Slice a baguette in small pieces and top each one with a spoon of imambayildi. Add half a lemon slice as well if you’re adventurous. It’s an excellent tapa to accompany a glass of wine or beer.