Imam biyaldi or Turkish twice cooked eggplant with preserved lemon scented couscous
Updated: Apr 16, 2022
The first time I had Imam Biyaldi was at a small cafe near Taksim Square in Istanbul, one of my favorite cities. I love eggplant, but this dish was so beyond my expectations, I was in love with it on first bite. Imam biyaldi literally means "the priest fainted". There are two stories on why he fainted, the first being that he loved the dish so much, and the second being the amount of olive oil used (it was super expensive in olden days) to make the dish, he fainted when he realized the cost of the dish. This dish however, is low on oil and high on flavor, so lets stay away from fainting please and just enjoying this wonderful dish that is considered to be the national dish of Turkey. It is definitely my favorite way to enjoy eggplant.
This version is a more contemporary take on this classic recipe. The meat of the eggplant is first scooped out to create a hollowed out shell. The scooped out meat is cooked in olive oil, just a touch, with tomatoes and spices including saffron. The seasoned eggplant is then put back into the eggplant shells and baked till the shells are soft and have absorbed all the beautiful flavors. Cooking the eggplant twice allows the flavors to get concentrated and shine. As an added touch I serve this on a bed of couscous, instead of the traditional pita bread, scented with preserved lemons (dhoop limboo). I love the flavors that come together, the rich spiced eggplant, the tartness from the couscous and the fresh pomegranate seeds. Also note that the flavors meld together with time, so give the dish at least 4-6 hours before serving, or even overnight. I could eat this dish every day!
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Photo credit: @Sankalp Vishnu
2 large purple eggplants, or 6-7 small purple eggplants
5-6 garlic cloves, minced
2 large onions, finely chopped
4 tomatoes, finely chopped
A generous pinch saffron
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon hot paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon pepper
Salt, to taste
Lime juice to taste
5 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup fresh mint, minced, keep some to garnish
Pomegranate seeds, to garnish
For the couscous:
1 cup couscous
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 dhoop limboo or preserved lemon, seeds removed and finely minced
3 tablespoons parsley or mint, or both, cut into fine strips
Cut the eggplants in half longitudinally, I like to keep the stems. You need to scoop out the inside flesh of the eggplant. To do this I make horizontal and vertical cuts in the flesh not cutting through the skins using a sharp paring knife. Then cut away from the edge of the skin scooping out the flesh in small pieces. Go as thin as you can but try not to cut through the skins. You should end up with a scooped out eggplant shell that is quite thin and even. Set the eggplant flesh and the shells aside. To prevent them from going brown, soak them in water with a squeeze of lemon juice, but it is not needed for this recipe as they get cooked.
Heat a pan and with the oil and add the onions and sauté on medium heat till lightly golden, about 6-8 minutes. Add the eggplant flesh and continue sautéing till the meat is cooked and soft, about 8-10 minutes more. Add the tomatoes, saffron, paprika, cumin, allspice, sugar, pepper and salt and toss well. Cook till the tomatoes are broken down and you have a wonderful sauce. Mix in the lime juice and mint and taste for salt, spice and tartness. You are looking for a fabulous sauce that is bold and packed with all the flavors that are beautifully balanced.
Heat an oven to 375 F.
Lay the scooped out eggplant shells in a singe layer in a pyrex dish hollow side up. Spoon in the cooked eggplant mix filling in the hollows, do not overload. You will have some, about 1/4 the mix, left over, spoon that gently on the base of the dish around the eggplants. Add the water and mix well with the cooked eggplant mix. The dish can be stored at this stage overnight or till needed. Seal tightly with foil so no steam can escape.
Bake the eggplant for 60-90 minutes, depending on the size. You really cannot over cook the eggplants so do not worry about it if it is a bit longer. Check the eggplant shells to ensure that they are cooked through and really soft. Set aside.
While the eggplants are baking, make the couscous as per the instructions on the box. Essentially, you heat the water with salt and as soon as it boils take off the heat. Mix in the minced preserved lemon and the couscous. Cover and allow to sit for 6-8 minutes. Open and fluff with a fork. Add the mint and fluff again and leave open so the couscous dries out a bit and is not sticky. Cover once cooled completely.
To serve, layer the couscous on a shallow platter and spoon the eggplant on top. Drizzle the juices on top of the eggplants, allowing it to drip down and flavor the couscous. Sprinkle the pomegranate seeds and mint for garnish. Serve barely warm or at room temperature.