Turkish imam bayaldi from Puerto Rico

The beach near our condo in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico

The beach near our condo in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico

For the second year in a row, we spent a week in January in Puerto Rico to escape from the frigid Michigan winter.

Temperatures were in the low 80s every day, and we had only a sprinkle of rain the entire week. The beaches were beautiful. It was a heavenly respite.

The food scene in Puerto Rico is interesting. The best supermarket is Wal-mart—not my favorite but you do what you have to do. There was a much smaller Econo supermarket about a mile and half from our rented condo in Vega Baja, on the northern coast of the island, so that’s where we did most of our shopping. It was about half the size of most markets in the States, and on the grungy side, but it sufficed.

Where to buy fresh fish?

One mystery to us is where to buy fresh fish in Puerto Rico. Go to any restaurant and you’ll see a variety of fish on the menu, but in the Econo the few varieties of fish were frozen and unappealing.

Produce is also a mystery. Lots of fruits and veggies are grown on the island, but everything in the stores comes from the States or Mexico, and it ain’t cheap. On the highways you frequently see people selling produce from ramshackle stands or from the back of a truck, but we never saw anyone selling fresh fish.

Restaurants in Puerto Rico serve an amalgam of American, European and Latin American cuisines.

Fresh fish with a side of mofongo

Fresh fish with a side of mofongo

Mofongo, a Puerto Rican original

The only truly Puerto Rican dish we encountered was mofongo, made from fried plantains mashed with garlic and oil and shaped into a ball or mound. Mofongo is often stuffed with meat or seafood.

The only big city we visited was San Juan, and the restaurant scene is very diverse. You can enjoy Italian, Spanish, Greek and Chinese cuisine as well as Latin American fare. Before we left for Puerto Rico we learned that Old San Juan now has a shop selling Rita’s Water Ice from my hometown of Philadelphia—something not easy to find outside of Philly, so of course we had to seek it out.

The cosmopolitan nature of the city is why I’m offering you a Turkish recipe with this little piece about Puerto Rico. Aside from the fact that I thought few of my readers would actually want to make mofongo, there is a little story involved.

Cosomopolitan Old San Juan

Your editor enjoying Philadelphia water ice in San Juan

Your editor enjoying Philadelphia water ice in San Juan

Last year, on our first visit, we ventured into Old San Juan. Not knowing what we were doing, we drove around for about an hour before we found a public parking lot. By then we were really hungry, so we looked for the closest street with restaurants and chose the Istanbul, a Turkish eatery with several good vegetarian options, including lentil soup and imam bayaldi, a delectable eggplant casserole.

We enjoyed the food there so much that on our return visit to Old San Juan this year we made a beeline for the Istanbul.

This recipe– slightly adapted from one I found at www.food.com—looks easy and tasty as well as similar to what we ate at the Istanbul.

The name of the dish means “the priest fainted.” The story goes that when the imam’s wife first prepared this dish, and he learned how much expensive oil went into its preparation, he fainted dead away.

It does use a lot of oil, but not so much that you should have the vapors. Don’t try to skimp on it too much, and use good quality olive oil because the oil is what gives this dish its special flavor. Be sure to cook the eggplant long enough for it to turn really brown and soft before adding everything else.

Imam Bayaldi

Vegetarian Dishes

Imam Bayaldi


  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 1/2 - 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 3 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped (or 14-oz. can diced tomatoes)
  • 4 Tbs, chopped parsley
  • 1 Tbs, chopped fresh mint or 1/2 tsp. dried mint, crumbled
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 medium eggplants
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice


  1. Saute the onions in a little oil.
  2. Add the garlic, tomatoes, parsley, salt, and pepper.
  3. Cook until it comes together as a very thick stew (no liquid). Stir in mint.
  4. Cut the stem ends from each eggplant and cut eggplants in half lengthwise.
  5. Make 3 lengthwise slits, almost from end to end, cutting into the flesh but leaving about an inch attached.
  6. Heat 1/2 cup olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.
  7. Add the eggplant, cut side down, and fry gently until dark golden-brown on cut side.
  8. Turn over and fry on skin side a couple more minutes.
  9. Remove from oil (most of it will have been absorbed) and place on paper towels to drain for at least 15 minutes before proceeding with recipe (this gets rid of any oil that wasn't absorbed.
  10. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  11. Hold each slit apart and spoon the vegetable mixture into each cavity.
  12. Arrange eggplants in a baking dish just large enough to hold them.
  13. Sprinkle with sugar, lemon juice, and drizzle with the remaining oil.
  14. Bake for 40 minutes, or until very tender.
  15. Serve with lots of crusty bread (or fresh pita).

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