Imam bayildi

Roughly translated as the imam swooned, this Turkish aubergine dish is said to have been so rich and swimming in oil, that the imam couldn't quite stay on his feet upon tasting it. I'm yet to have this reaction, but it's a great dish particularly if you seek something meaty and substantial that is actually meat-free (and gluten and dairy-free for that matter). Aubergines are wonderful carriers of flavour, in this instance, a warmly-spiced tomato sauce that sinks into the aubergine to create a dish with the silkiest texture an imam could ever ask for. There are many, many ways to make the dish, but this is mine. 

Imam bayildi

Imam bayildi

Serves 4 as a main, 6 as a side

Olive oil
2 onions, finely sliced
4 garlic cloves, finely sliced
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon Turkish chilli flakes (or a pinch of regular chilli flakes)
3 x 400g tins plums tomatoes, drained and rinsed of their gunk
1 cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons of pomegranate molasses
4 large aubergines
Olive oil
A small handful each of mint, parsley and dill leaves, roughly chopped

Make the tomato sauce first. Warm up a generous splash of oil in a deep pan over a medium-low heat. Add the onions and garlic and a pinch of salt and fry gently for 15 minutes until completely soft. Stir in the allspice, paprika and chilli, and fry for a further minute. 

Add rinsed tomatoes, crushing them with the back of your spoon. Throw in the bay leaves, cinnamon and a splash of water and leave the sauce to simmer gently for 45 minutes until reduced and deliciously sweet.

Meanwhile, slice the aubergines into eighths lengthways. This bit involves quite a lot of olive oil, so brace yourself....

In your largest frying pan, pour in enough oil to generously coat the bottom. Add as many pieces of aubergine as you can without crowding them and fry on all sides until golden brown, adding more oil when you can see that the pan is drying up. The aubergine will absorb the oil like a sponge, but rest assured this only makes the dish taste more luxurious. Keep going  with the aubergine until all pieces are golden and softened, but still holding their shape. Season with plenty of salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6. Taste the tomato sauce and add salt and pepper to taste, and add a little more chilli or paprika if you feel it needs in, then stir in the molasses and discard the bay leaves and cinnamon.

Layer up the sauce and aubergines in a deep oven dish. Finish with a layer of tomato, then cover with foil and place in the oven for 45 minutes, removing the foil for the final 10 minutes. Check that it's done by inserting a table knife - it should slip right through the layers. You want the aubergine to be completely soft and falling apart. Serve immediately sprinkled with the herbs, or leave to cool to room temperature if you prefer. If you don't have to be dairy free, try serving it with garlic yoghurt or with feta crumbled over while still warm. Is even better the day after,