I don’t own up to the four or five kilos of fat I have acquired in Turkey when I am checking my bags in at the airport. If they would let me swap it for extra books or shoes in my hand baggage maybe I would find the strength of will to dodge the daily temptations of Turkish cuisine. Just the journey from the metro to my flat runs the gauntlet of bakeries, kebab stands, börekçisis, open buffet lokantas and tost büfes.
How do Turkish people avoid them all and the US levels of obesity that should go with a diet high in cheese, red meat, oil and fried food? Perhaps they are all carrying their fat on the inside, namely in their arteries. Half the Turks I know are on medication for high cholesterol; no surprise when you see them shaking the salt over their köfte with all the vigor of a child with a snowglobe.
It says something about the calorific-ness of Turkish cuisine when the healthy options are the Zeytinyağlı dishes, cold vegetable based entrees swimming in olive oil. OK, OK it’s ‘good’ fat (or a conspiracy by the olive oil companies) but there’s nothing good about it when it’s hanging over the top of your jeans.
Losing weight here is made doubly hard by the fact that Turks must feed you every time you enter their house, despite your protestations that you are not hungry/on a diet/eating later. İn fact, I have often been presented with food that I eat so as not to offend, while my host, not victim to the same etiquette, is free to abstain.
Fruit and vegetables in Turkish cuisine are not as innocent as they pretend. Dieters should run for the hills at the sign of an aubergine in their meal. İt sucks up oil like a vacuum cleaner during cooking and often a second plate is needed to rescue it from drowning in its oily lake. Ayva, kabak and incir tatlısı (quince, fig and pumpkin dessert) have a similarly torrid affair with sugar, and are served with the artery filling kaymak (Turkish clotted cream), so high in calories it isn’t even labelled in shops.
However the determined dieter can avoid some pitfalls. Simit looks like a harmless enough between meals snack, but the sesame seeds raise the calorie levels to near main course levels. A lower calorie bran version is available at Komşu Fırın in Cihangir. Rice is usually cooked in butter or oil, but bulgur rice pilaf uses less. Be brave at the Kumpir (Turkish style baked potato) stand and stop the seller from adding the butter and cheese that you can’t taste anyway.
Try declining salt and he’ll be clutching his evil eye as you then choose only the pickle, yoghurt, ezme and vegetable toppings. If red meat is an essential part of your meat intake, a couple of times a week won’t test your health insurance too much. Opting for çiğ köfte (raw lamb meatballs), which is made with only the leanest cuts of meat, is a much healthier choice than kebabs which add fat into the mix for flavor.
All this made me curious. Just what would an unbridled appetite for Turkish food do to me? And is it possible to follow a diet on it?
One day binge
In true ‘the diet starts tomorrow’ fashion, I opted to have the binge day first. Breakfasting in the most calorific way meant peynirli börek*. Cheese, grease, pastry and eggs; my belt unbuckled itself in anticipation. A whole portion took considerably more stamina than the half a portion I’d normally have.
You must have to breakfast at 5am to be remotely hungry by lunchtime but by the time they were pouring the melted butter onto my İskender kebab (486*** cals per porsion), my appetite was sufficiently awakened to clean the plate. Returning home to don elasticated trousers and sleep off lunch like a hibernating bear.
My stomach had stretched enough that mild rumbles heralded dinner. The highest calorie Turkish soup, Ezo Gelin (lentil soup, 190 cals per bowl) started me off, followed by a World Federation wrestler friendly selection of mezes: Zeytinyağlı biber dolması (stuffed green pepper, 420 cals), American salad (325 cals), sigara börek* and hummus (200 cals) and an unending supply of bread. Dessert was easier than you might imagine as Walnut Baklava hides its 690 calories in syrupy, flaky lightness, lacking the more blatant, but honest, heaviness of Western style cream and egg rich desserts.
I went to bed scared to sleep on my back lest the weight of my distended stomach rest on my lungs and suffocate me before I could undo some of the damage the next day. Day’s total = 2311 plus böreks and bread.
One day diet
Postive I’d never eat again, I nonetheless woke with a caveman like ‘Feed me’ urge. Reasoning that it must be possible to follow an edited Turkish breakfast on a diet, I bulked up on the amount of tomato and cucumber (50 cals), 1 olive (no sacrifice as I hate them anyway, their ‘act innocent and pretend to be a grape’ routine having caught me out once in my youth, 12 cals), a hard boiled egg (76 cals), 110 calories of white cheese and 2 slices of bread (180). Yesterday was much more fun and I was knawing my arm off by lunchtime.
Although İşkembe çorbası (tripe soup) is lower in calories than the other commonly found soups at 165, once it was wafting its intestinal aroma at me, I couldn’t bring myself to touch it, which does make it very well suited to dieting. A seasonal mixed salad (37 cals) kept hunger pangs quiet whilst I waited for my chicken şiş kebab (165 cals), forewent the bread and filled up on Aşure (masquerading as a pudding with its dried fruits, nuts, rice and chickpeas) instead, at a much more wisely invested 215 calories.
Tonight’s meze was calorie poorer but no less rich in taste. The saviours, if the too good to be true calorie counts are to be believed, were the Zeytinyağlı dishes (leek, 260 cals; green beans, 21 cals), beetroot (38 cals), piyaz (white bean salad, 175 cals) and spicy ezme (tomato based puree, 60 cals but necessitating 180 calories of bread).
There was still room for dessert, but I wasted 140 calories on Sakızlı Muhallebi (Mastic pudding), tasteless slop made with chewing gum. I might be fooled by the chick peas and maybe even the Tavuk Göğsü (chicken breast dessert, 155 cals) but I’m not eating a dessert that has a main ingredient in common with toothpaste ever again.
I retired for the evening feeling far less polluted than last night. Total for the day = 1719 calories, a saving of 700 calories even before the off-any-known-scale böreks of yesterday. Cut out a couple of things and this could fit a diet plan without too much hardship but who has willpower strong enough?
*Calories kept top secret by parliamentary decree.
*** Knowing what I now now about calorie counts, I don’t see how any of these figures can be anything like high enough. I did my research at the time but having to search in English, I am sure, limited my results to the fantastical.