And the Imam Fainted

Quick update: Connecticut finally has a budget or will in a couple of days. Hurrah!

The Story

Before he was a cute little rodent chef, Ratatouille was a Mediterranean dish. The Petry family dined on it at regular intervals over the late summer and early fall. Variations of this recipe appear in Greek, Turkish, Italian and French cuisine.

The myth that goes with it comes from Turkey and has been adopted by the Greeks. I first read it in a cookbook, but I’ve long since forgotten which one. The religious leader in that version had become a priest. Since this story occurs in Turkey, he’s an imam. Anyway, the story goes that the imam was coming for dinner following a long day of religious services, and the woman of the house didn’t have the meat she needed to make his favorite dish of eggplant and ground lamb.  It was probably moussaka or its close relative, which is another story for another time. The butcher shop was closed, so she improvised.

The imam arrived at the appointed hour, and she nervously served him. He took a bite and smiled. He took another bite and smiled some more. Then he ate, and he ate, and he ate, and then he ate even more. (It’s a myth, so she never runs out of food.) When he was about to burst out of his robes, he stopped. He told the woman how delicious it was – and asked what was different. The woman didn’t want to admit what she’d done, so she said, “I used a little extra oil.”

“How much?” asked the imam. “A tablespoon?” The woman shook her head.

“A cup?” She shook her head again.

“Two cups?” Another shake.

“A quart?” The woman nodded, and the imam fainted. Hence the Turkish name, “Imam Bayeldi” or “Fainting Imam.” The Petry version of the recipe mercifully contains only two tablespoons of oil.

The Recipe

The vegetables for this dish should come fresh from the garden – your own or someone else’s. My version is a modification of what appears in John Thorne’s Simple Cooking and is essentially the way my mom prepared it. The key is not to stir it once it’s come to a boil. That way the vegetables retain their shape. You are allowed to peek under the lid if you can restrain yourself from taking the spoon to it.


Serves 8

1 medium onion                        1 large very ripe tomato

1 medium green bell pepper  2 cloves garlic

2 medium zucchini                 1 /2 tsp thyme

1 medium eggplant                 2 Tbsp olive oil

2 Tbsp fresh basil leaves        salt and pepper to taste

Peel the onion and cut it in half lengthwise. Cut into thin slices. Cut the ends off remaining vegetables. Core the green pepper and remove seeds. Cut all vegetables except garlic into one-inch chunks. Peel and mince garlic. Shred basil.

Heat the oil over medium heat in a large sauté pan with a close fitting lid. Add all the vegetables except the tomatoes and the garlic. Sauté, stirring until the vegetables begin to soften and eggplant starts to turn color. Add remaining ingredients and stir gently. Bring mixture to a boil and then lower the heat to simmer. Cover the pot and cook undisturbed for 35 minutes.

This dish can stand on its own or can be served with pasta, rice, or hearty bread. It tastes good cold, and like most stews, improves if it stands overnight. Just remember not to stir it too much when reheating.


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