Vegetarian: Fainting Imam (Turkish Baked Stuffed Eggplant)

Lauren Rothman

If there's one vegetable I turn to again and again when cooking vegetarian, it's eggplant: moist, creamy and tender (when done right), it feels particularly substantial, which causes many to deem it "meaty." I don't much care about my vegetables tasting like meat, but I understand the comparison: eggplant definitely seems like the center of a meal, as opposed to a supporting actor.

I've prepared eggplant in all sorts of ways, but one dish I'd always been curious about is a Turkish recipe alternately called "Fainting Imam" or "Swooning Imam," for which whole eggplants are halved, their flesh scooped out and cooked with onions and tomatoes, then piled back inside the eggplant halves and either simmered or baked. Though the exact origin of the dish is lost, the recipe was supposedly developed for a prominent imam, or Muslim priest, by his cook, and when he smelled it simmering the intoxicating aroma caused him to faint.

I thought the imam's reaction was a pretty high selling point, so I decided to tackle the recipe myself. I looked over a few versions, which were all extremely simple, typically adding only tomatoes, onions, salt and occasionally some fresh parsley to the eggplant filling. Since eggplant can sometimes be bland, I decided to round out the flavors of the filling by adding fresh garlic and ginger, as well as ground cumin and coriander. It's important not to skimp on fat when cooking eggplant, as the flesh can become spongy and rubbery without it, so I filled the bottom of the baking dish with plenty of olive oil. Finally, I crowned the finished dish with two of my favorite Mediterranean ingredients: plain yogurt and tart, puckery pomegranate molasses, as well as a sprinkling of fresh mint and toasted nuts.

When I served the dish to friends, no one fainted. But the eggplants did disappear in a matter of minutes.