IMAM BAYILDI.

A correspondent named Dave wrote me with the following query:

It’s about “Imam bayildi”, a fantastic Turkish eggplant dish that I learnt recently, usually translated as “the imam fainted” with a convoluted folkstory explaining the name (these stories are funny and cool: the imam fainted when he realised the amount of olive oil in the dish, the imam fainted because of how exquisite it tastes etc). Helping my sister-in-law record an evolving recipe, I came across this blog entry with a comment that suggests two meanings for bayil (“The verb BAYIL-MAK has 2 meanings in Turkish. 1. fainted 2. enjoy something very much…”), the second of which, if good, sacrifices fun for sense… What do you think?

What I thought was “Damn, I’ve been telling that story about the imam fainting for years—you mean it’s just bad definition?” I looked in my Langenscheidt and sure enough, it said “bayılmak 1. to faint, to swoon; 2. to like greatly, to be enraptured (by).” So, Turkish speakers: does the dish’s name mean simply ‘the imam enjoyed it a lot,’ or is ‘fainted’ what native speakers understand by it?

Comments

  1. marie-lucie says:

    My old French cookbook says that the imam ate so much of this delicious dish that he fainted.
    The two meanings listed in the dictionary, although separate, are not incompatible: to faint, swoon, be enraptured all indicate being swept off from normal functioning and transported or “rapt” into what one might call another dimension – this could be caused by actual loss of consciousness or by extreme pleasure, as well as other strong emotions such as “le coup de foudre”. So, the imam must have been swooning with gustatory pleasure.
    What I find intriguing is why this is attributed to an imam.

  2. Turkish food writers promulgate this etymology as much as foreign writers, so I would have to go with the idea that it simply means “like so much you swoon”. The ending -di is simply putting a simple past to the verb stem. A lot of dishes in the Ottoman court tradition have descriptive names like this – often derived from Persian – which is what the inner court usually spoke. Outside of the courtly tradition most dishes have names like “stew Adana style” vs. “Stew Malatya style” – and understand that stew will always be lamb.

  3. I lived for a number of years in Turkey, and the story I always heard was that it was a case of the imam fainting — possibly because it was so good, but in at least some of the versions told by my Turkish friends, he fainted at the expense of all the olive oil used in the dish’s preparation. This fits with a rather negative popular stereotype of village imams, who are seen as stingy killjoys. Another popular expression with the same stereotype is “İmam evinden aş, ölü gözünden yaş çıkmaz”, meaning “You won’t get food out of the imam’s house, nor tears out of a corpse’s eyes.”
    Another rather scornful colloqual expression is “imamın aptes suyu” (“the imam’s ablution water”) for extremely weak tea.
    Also, the “real” meaning of the verb “bayılmak” is “to faint”, with the meaning “to like” being a slangish semantic extension, usually used in the aorist rather than in the past tense, and in the meaning of “to go crazy over”, “to really dig”, “to absolutely love”, and the like. You’re most likely to hear it in terms of teenaged girls talking about music groups and the like.
    As for “liking” a dish, there is, by the way, another Turkish dish, also made with eggplant, called “hünkarbeğendi”, meaning “the sultan liked it”.

  4. OK, I don’t have to revise my original understanding of the phrase. Excellent, and thanks!

  5. Thank you LH and commenters! For those who haven’t tried the dish, hot cold or left-over “the imams” really are swoon-tasticly delicious (we call them the imams because the trimmed stem/sepals of the lebanese eggplants look like imams’ kufis).
    // a correspondent named Dave

  6. Forrest’s discussion of “imam bayildi” is a great one. Most probably, the name got started of as meaning “the imam loved it”, and other socio-cultural interpretations followed. Nothing else would be expected from a society of smart arses.
    Turkish is full of witty double meanings. This typically what happens when authorities take it upon themselves to suppress the free expression of ideas.

  7. Terry Collmann says:

    I wonder if the anti-clerical ideas behind some of the explanations for the name of the dish are the same as those that appear in some explanations of the name of the Italian dish strozzapreti, or priest stranglers …
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strozzapreti

  8. dearieme says:

    Would porridge taste better if we called it “The minister permitted himself the ghost of a wintry smile”?

  9. I would really regret losing the story about the imam fainting, especially since I was thinking of creating an entire menu of anti-clerical-titled dishes including Imam Bayildi, Strozzapreti (priest stranglers) and a dish that might be called Rabbi-Punchers, or something like that.

  10. Chinese has a lot of dish titles like this. It’s ruining the fun to try to come up with a rigid designator (or whatever). The more chat such a title produces, the better.
    It’s sort of like scriptural exegesis of the creative kind. You’d have to be a boor to explain to Chu Hsi that his etymology is wrong.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    There is a French verb which has almost the same apparently double meaning as Turkish bayil: se pâmer. According to the Petit Robert the original meaning was “to lose consciousness”, but later “to be almost paralyzed by a violent emotion or sensation”, such as love, admiration, etc. Usually the word, like English swoon, is used in a slightly derogatory way to describe exaggerated reactions, such as that of teen-aged girls to popular idols (as in the Turkish example given by Forrest).
    In all three languages the words seem to have progressed from the meaning of actually losing consciousness, to that of apparent or even faked loss or near loss of consciousness, caused by an intense positive feeling. Therefore I would suggest translating imam bayildi into French, not as l’imam s’évanouit – the imam fainted – as in my old cookbook, but as l’imam se pâmait (de plaisir) – the imam was just about swooning (from pleasure) – of course because he liked the food so much.

  12. caffeind says:

    Hey, it’s less semantic bleaching than “to die for”.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    True! but it is the same general idea. Someone from another culture could be racking their brains over this English idiom: “do they really mean they want to die, or they just like whatever it is?”

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