Turkish brinjal in tomato sauce

Turkish brinjal in tomato sauce

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  • 4– 6
  • Easy
  • 1 hour

This classic Turkish dish has its roots in legend. Quite a few theories circulate around its name, which literally translates to ‘Imam fainted’. Some say the fried aubergine with the tomato sauce and onion filling was so ridiculously good that the Imam fainted. A counter argument to this theory is that the Ottoman cuisine of the time was so lavish with meat, eggs, dairy, animal fats, nuts and dried fruit, that this relatively simple dish could hardly qualify to make an imam — who would be used to it all — faint. Another version of the story is that upon hearing how much precious olive oil was used to make the dish properly, the imam fainted. Personally I’d like to think this version has more truth to it, because to fry the aubergine the way you must for this dish, you really need a whopping amount of oil.

Smaller, long aubergines would be best, as imam bayildi is an elegant dish. Although it is meat-free, it reminds me of the Arabic Levantine sheikh el mahshi (‘lord of the stuffed vegetable’), and the Iranian shekam pareh (meaning ‘split belly’, referring to the aubergine being split in the middle) — which is the same as the Turkish karnıyarık, which translates exactly the same. I found a recipe for ‘A Jewish Dish of Eggplants Stuffed with Lamb’ in a book about the cooking of Andalucia and Maghreb from the thirteenth to fifteenth century that sounds a lot like those two meat-stuffed aubergine dishes; it seems aubergines were an ingredient of choice for the Jewish community in these lands, who were quick to embrace this under-appreciated vegetable when it was first introduced into southern Europe with the Arab conquest.

As with aubergine parmigiana and mirza ghasemi, using ripe and in-season produce will make a significant difference. Don’t be too controlling with your best olive oil, either. We wouldn’t want to hold back the imam from fainting.


  • 6 6 thin brinjals or 3 large round ones
  • salt, for salting the brinjals
  • 1⁄3 cup olive oil, for pan-frying, plus extra if needed
  • chopped parsley, to garnish (optional)
  • For the filling:
  • 4 T olive oil
  • 3 onions, sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 ½ t tomato paste
  • 4–5 tomatoes, about 400 g, diced
  • 2 t salt
  • 1 ½ t sugar
  • 1 t sweet paprika
  • For the sauce:
  • 1 ½ t tomato paste
  • ½ cup hot water (from a kettle)
  • 1 t salt

Cooking Instructions

1. Peel some stripes off each aubergine, leaving the rest of the skin on for a decorative effect; alternatively, you can leave the aubergines unpeeled. If you’re using large round aubergines, cut them in half lengthways.

2. Cut a long slit lengthways along the middle of each aubergine, but not all the way through, to serve as a pocket. Rub all parts of the aubergines generously with salt. Leave in a colander for 30 minutes to 1 hour for them to release any bitter juices.

3. Meanwhile, make the filling. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and sauté the onion over high heat for 5–7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 2–3 minutes, until fragrant. Stir in the tomato paste and diced tomatoes. Cook for a minute or two, then season with the salt, sugar, paprika and black pepper. Stir in ½ cup (125 ml) water and simmer gently over low heat for 15 minutes.

4. Wash and dry the aubergines. Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan and lightly pan-fry the aubergines on all sides over medium– high heat. We don’t want to cook them thoroughly at this stage, just soften them and add a bit of flavour. If frying the aubergines in batches, you may need to use some more oil.

5. Arrange the aubergines in a large saucepan. Open the slits down the middle and stuff each one with 2–3 tablespoons of the filling, drizzling in any remaining liquid as well.

6. Mix the sauce ingredients together until well combined, then pour into the pan from the side. Cover and cook over medium heat for about 30 minutes, then remove the lid and cook for another 15–25 minutes, until the liquid has reduced and the aubergines are completely soft. You may need to add a bit more water if they take longer to cook. (Instead of cooking them on the stove during this final stage, you can also bake the aubergines in a preheated 180°C/350°F for about 1 hour — but I personally prefer the stovetop method.)

7. Serve at room temperature, garnished with parsley if desired, with flat bread or Iranian rice (page 22, below) on the side.

This is an extract from Pomegranates + Artichokes: Recipes and memories of a journey from Iran to Italy by Saghar Setareh (Murdoch Books). Photography by Saghar Setareh

Find more brinjal recipes here.


Saghar Setareh Recipe by: Saghar Setareh
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Saghar Setareh is a food photographer, writer and cookbook author. She shares stories and recipes from her life as an Iranian immigrant in Italy. Her book is called Pomegranates + Artichokes: Recipes and memories of a journey from Iran to Italy.

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