Notes from West London

My taramasalata moment

Taramasalata: 12 letters, 6 occurrences of the letter “a”. It’s the kind of thing I had never heard of, let alone eaten, until I went to university. There are members of my family who have still never eaten it, and have never eaten hummus, tahini or tzatziki. There wasn’t much call for any of those savoury dips in Kilkenny or Dublin when my parents were growing up.

Until ten years ago I assumed that taramasalata was a healthy food – fish roe, right? I wrote in January (a piece called “Porlock”) about reading through some of the hundreds of thousands of words that I started typing in January 2006; these constitute (among other things) the most detailed diary I have ever kept. I can see that my “taramasalata moment” came ten years ago this month, with the revelation that it’s not as healthy a food as I thought.

It was Lent, I was trying to eat more healthily, and bought a tub of the stuff to eat with carrot and cucumber. I ate the whole thing, all 283 grams of it, before lunch one day. That’s over half a pound in imperial measurements. Only when I was eating my lunch (wheat-free pasta with grated cheese) did I check the nutritional information: 1360 calories, 136g of fat, most of the Recommended Daily Allowance of salt, even some added sugar. I had ingested the equivalent of a small glass of vegetable oil, before starting on my lunch. I had a pain in my side for the next two days, and assumed that at least one of my internal organs (liver, perhaps, or gall bladder) was working overtime just to break down all that oil. Dinner was an apple and some salad, and I drank lemon juice and grapefruit juice thinking that citrus would help to break down all that oil. I woke up at 3.15am the next morning in too much pain to get back to sleep. I have learnt my lesson and will only eat small portions of the stuff now. Discussing it with friends afterwards I found that most of them were already aware that taramasalata was over 40% fat.

My brother went through something similar when he learnt about the calorific content of bannoffee pie, although he was under no illusion that it might be a healthy food. He had become a big fan of this dessert while spending time in Ireland during the 1990s. My wife made one at Christmas one year and while he was enjoying his second large slice he asked what went into it. He has never eaten a large slice of it since. It has bananas, so there’s one healthy ingredient, but the amount of butter, sugar, condensed milk and cream came as a real shock to him. We figured it was probably a thousand calories per slice – not as much as a tub of taramasalata, but enough to make you change your behaviour.

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