I asked myself this when eating with my family in a pub restaurant called the Tickell Arms. This was an elegantly scruffy blue painted Georgian house with ornate white windows and stone lions perched either side of the front door in Whittlesford, a village just outside Cambridge. It was a Cambridge legend for eccentricity.
The flamboyant proprietor, Kim Tickell (middle name De La Taste , although his first name was actually Joseph Hollick) banned all “loony lefties, collarless shirt wearers, and women playing with candle wax ” who were frequently told to find a nunnery. He was acceptably non–politically correct only because it was the mid-seventies. He did not wish to conform and played classical opera, typically Wagner, at a high level. When he wanted to close, he sent in his dogs.
Kim second left at a Beagle meet Whittlesford in the 1970’s
Inside the food was laid out on the brushed pewter bar counter with candle light playing on the dark red walls. The smoke darkened ceiling had remnants of World War II names in candle soot.
The food was quirky and very original for the time. I chose the stuffed aubergine vegetarian dish named Imam Biyaldi. The dish nestled against other brown pottery dishes of meaty lamb moussaka. A juniper infused pheasant casserole came out on good shooting days. The flavours were exotic, intriguing, and different to anything any restaurant in the area was making then.
The recipe name of Imam Byaldi was described to me poetically as “the sultan fainted” so I had an image of him slipping back onto his overstuffed cushions, replete with too much olive oil, a rarity in many dishes even post Elizabeth David.
According to the legend, consuming halved stuffed aubergine filled with roughly chopped onions, chunks of garlic and slowly cooked tomatoes was enough to do this. The addition of raisins plumply swollen with cooking juices, pine nuts, slivers of aubergine flesh and hints of paprika, cumin and cinnamon burst through the smokey flavours from the charred skin in the version I consumed.
This dish of my memory intrigued me not only by its flavours but also how the name inspired me many years later to delve more deeply into its history. I realized with how much license the chef had used to change the dish from its humble origins. The dim light over the distressed dark mahogany tables made it difficult to distinguish the ingredients other than by taste, but I can remember it more than thirty years on.
Ottoman Turkish cooking purists use dried mint, oregano or chopped parsley and then just paprika and lemon or pekmez (which is reduced grape juice) as a natural sweetener to produce a soft blend of flavours. However I preferred my memory dish and I have subsequently cooked this many times. I realized then that food could have a story, dishes be developed and available sultans seduced with deftly crafted vegetarian dishes.
The pub and restaurant is now owned by Camscuisine and serves excellent food. But they have not served Imam Byaldi since Kim died in 1990.
This dish expanded my food horizons towards the unusual and different. It meant that I took up food as a career: studying, teaching and lecturing. It sparked in me a desire to learn more and develop the sense of food as excitement, pleasure, history and fun.