Traveling to Iran as a vegan? You might think it’s near impossible in a land where kebabs are king. But I assure you, it’s not as bad as you think. And even if you’re not vegan or vegetarian, the repeated kebab lunch/dinner will surely have you welcome something a bit lighter. So find out about veganism in Iran in general, which Persian dishes are vegan-friendly, and where you can shop and eat in Tehran with this survival guide to being vegan in Iran.
But first, a brief word about my vegan journey
(And please feel free to skip this part.) I actually became vegan in Iran two years ago. Long story short, it all started because of a disease diagnosed in my family, and as I started researching it, I came across veganism over and over again. And the more I read about it, quite frankly, the more sense it made to me. I then read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer which completely flipped things around for me. Then I watched Cowspiracy, bawled my eyes out through Earthlings, and that was it.
I think I inherently always had it in me, though. As a kid, whenever my mom cooked ghormeh sabzi, I used to fish around for the kidney beans and never the meat. When she caught me, it was, “You didn’t take any meat!” And we’d negotiate over how many pieces I’d have to eat. Meanwhile in Iran, I used to gasp in disgust as my cousins fought over who got the bone to eat the marrow. How could I be related to these barbarians!? And the few sheep ghorbâni (sacrificial slaughtering) I unintentionally witnessed in Iran as a child were traumatizing to say the least. I’m not even going to get into that.
So anyway, not only did I become vegan, but shortly thereafter, I got my entire family to go vegan as well. It’s without a doubt my single proudest accomplishment to this day.
Is being vegan in Iran hard?
People tend to think that it’s hard to be vegan in Iran because it’s a heavily meat-based culture. It is, but I would argue that no more so than the US. Next time you watch TV, pay attention to the sheer volume of fast food/meat/chicken/pork/cheese commercials. Don’t tell me the US isn’t heavily meat-based, too. But what makes it harder in Iran is that there aren’t the same plentiful vegan products available in the grocery store as there are in the US.
But then one day I saw this post on Instagram that shocked me.
Iran is #12? I have no idea what the source or criteria were, but I could easily think of at least 20 reasons why it couldn’t be true. But it also made me realize that there actually are some pluses:
- Iranians are huge on fresh, seasonal produce. Produce stands are abundant- like every block. And if it’s not a shop, it’s some guy selling his fruit at cheaper prices from the back of his truck or on the side of the street or highway. During our summer visits to Iran, we’d always eat a giant plate of fruit in the morning and afternoon as a snack. It was practically a ritual. And anyone with a Persian mom has experienced being handed a bowl of cut-up, ready-to-eat fruit. It’s a Persian mama thing.
- Vegetables, herbs, and spices are also used plentifully in Persian cooking. Not to mention that Iranians eat raw herbs by the fist full.
- “Street food” is healthy and seasonal– laboo (steamed beets) and bâghâlâ (fava beans) in the fall/winter, goje sabz(greengage), châghâle bâdum (spring almonds), and toot [siâh] (mulberries and blackberries) in the spring, balâl(grilled corn), and gerdu tâze (fresh walnuts soaked in salt water) in the summer.
- Âjeel- Iranians are big âjeel (dried fruits and nuts) eaters.
Vegans in Iran
There’s also the promising news that the word about veganism is spreading. Dr. Beski is one such person, a raw vegan and environmental activist from the Golestan province who advocates for a plant-based diet. And just a couple of months ago, several people asked if I had watched Dorehami (a popular late-night show) the night before. I hadn’t. They went on to tell me that the guest spoke all about veganism and the environmental impacts of a meat-based diet. While most of them still said they didn’t think they could do it, it got their attention and got them talking. That’s a huge first step if you ask me.
And that time I was in the voting line for 7 hours, one of the guys we were talking to bought everyone lunch. When he was passing out the sandwiches, one girl and I politely declined. Her dad chimed in, “Oh, she’s a strict vegan! You can’t get her to eat anything with meat.” My dad and I looked at each other, surprised. It tickled me that of all the people in this little 15 million-people town, we ended up next to each other.
And recently when I passed on a piece of cake, my student asked if I was on a diet. When I told him I was vegan, he told me his yoga instructor was also vegan and often talked to them about the benefits. He even organized a 4-day desert tour where they would be eating only vegan food. “About 60% of the class dropped out of the tour after hearing that,” he laughed.
Why am I telling you all of this? Just to say that Iran is not as vegan-unfriendly as you may think. The hardest part is telling people. But isn’t that the hardest part anywhere in the world you go?
Iranian vegetarian/vegan dishes
So what can you eat while visiting? Here are some vegan Persian dishes along with some tips and recommendations on where to shop and eat in Tehran.
Appetizers and main dishes
âsh-e reshte: a thick soup with beans and noodles. It’s often topped with kashk (a milk product), so ask for bedoone kashk (without kashk).
zeytun parvardeh: olives mixed with pomegranate paste, crushed walnuts, and garlic
bâghâli polo: rice with lima beans usually served with meat, so ask for bedoone goosht (without meat) or bâghâli polo khâli (plain bâghâli rice)- or say both for extra emphasis.
adas polo: lentil rice usually with cinnamon, raisins, chopped dates, and walnuts.
adasi: lentil soup, commonly served for breakfast
loubiâ: pinto bean soup
salad shirazi: chopped tomato, cucumber, and onion salad
falafel: self explanatory
sambose: samosas (make sure they are veggie as meat-filled ones are also available)
bâghâlâ ghâtogh: a dish from the north of Iran made with fava beans, dill, and usually topped with an egg. The name of this dish is a true tongue twister, so if you dare even pronounce it to order it, you can take the egg off or ask for it without (bedoone tokhme morgh).
mirzâ ghâsemi: smoked eggplant, tomato, and garlic with egg. Another dish from the north, this one also has egg. Some places I’ve been to have been able to serve it without egg while other make it pre-mixed. You have to ask, which may get tricky. In that case, don’t order it.
kashk-e bâdemjân: sautéed eggplant with kashk. Same as above, some places can make it without kashkwhile others mix it all in together.
fresh juices: With all the delicious fruits available, there are also lots of freshly squeezed juices. Aside from the usual orange, apple, celery, etc., try tâlebi (melon), havij (carrot), my favorite hendune (watermelon), anâr (pomegranate), zereshk (barberry), albâloo (sour cherry)- careful with those last three, though, as they could really make your blood pressure drop faster than you can say Jack Robinson. Or try a mix of different fruits.
sharbat: In the summer, try drinks like khâkshir (literally, “dirt milk”. I’ve seen it translated as teff, mugwort seed, London rocket, and more recently, flixweed. I have no idea what the right one is.) or try tokhme sharbati (a chia seed-rosewater drink). There are endless other types of araghijât (herbal distillate mixes).
faloodeh: semi-frozen rice noodles in syrup and topped with lemon juice and sometimes albâloo syrup. I take mine with lots of lemon juice.
sholeh zard: saffron rice pudding dusted with cinnamon and topped with almond slivers. This dessert is typically made during religious ceremonies and widely sold during the month of Ramadan. It’s often made in large batches and given away as nazri (a charitable offering).
pashmak: candy floss (literally, “little wool”). Buy it from any confectionary or try the real deal at Haj Khalifa in Yazd.
lavâshak: fruit leather. Ok maybe this isn’t technically a dessert, but it’s still delicious. Darband in Tehran is a particularly good place to try lavâshak or dried sour cherries/plums/apricots, etc. Tell the vendor if you prefer sour (torsh) or sweet and sour (malas), and he’ll give you something appropriate to try. Around Kashan, they sold lavâshak in what resembled rolls of fabric, and you ordered by the meter!
halvâ arde: tahini-based halva with pistachios. Again, maybe not technically a dessert, but it is really satisfying if you’re craving something sweet (and a good breakfast option).
Where to shop in Tehran
For your nut, seed, and dried fruit needs, try the famous Tavazo. With several branches throughout Tehran, it’s built a reputation as being the best to offer the freshest nuts and dried fruits. It’s also a great place to stock up on souvenirs for people back home.
Attâri are little shops all around every city that specialize in all your herbal remedies, herbs, spices, oils, teas, aragh (herbal distillates), and basically anything else natural (including soap and shampoo).
Oil/peanut butter shops
There’s also an increasing number of shops that sell various oils like flaxseed, pistachio, hazelnut, castor, sweet almond, bitter almond, coconut, sesame, etc. They also grind kare bâdum zamini (peanut butter) and arde (tahini) right there in front of you- no sugar added. These shops are all over Tehran, but probably the most accessible one is in the Tajrish Bazaar.
Iran has great bread like barbari and sangak, but if you’re looking for more European style, dark, whole grain loaves, try Nân-e Sahar which has a few shops around Tehran. The supermarket in Palladium mall also has a nice bakery.
Tajrish Bazaar is known for having any produce you can’t find anywhere else in Tehran. Other than that, it’s full of shops selling nuts and fruits, oil and peanut butter, olives and other pickled vegetables, and attâri.
There are a few Bamika markets around town with produce and ready-made food (mostly vegetarian, but some vegan stuff too).
Govinda is similar to Bamika (more vegetarian-friendly), but smaller and has a cafe.
At the grocery store
If you’re shopping at the grocery store, you can pick up dried soy (soyâ in Persian). Many Iranians use it as an alternative to ground beef when cooking mâkâroni (Persian-style spaghetti). Soy milk is the only non-dairy milk available. There are plenty of legumes and grains, oatmeal, quinoa, and panir tofu (tofu cheese). You can find imported Japanese tofu, otherwise, panir tofu has more of the taste and consistency of feta cheese. Oddly enough, if it’s not at the grocery store, I sometimes find it at the butcher’s (or protein shop). The frozen section also offers semi-cooked falafel and chopped herbs ready for cooking.
Let’s just say you won’t be disappointed by the produce in Iran. I’ve actually become really spoiled by it because I now realize how bland fruits and vegetables taste in the States.
Vegan restaurants in Tehran
Banyan Tree is my favorite vegan restaurant in Tehran. Not only is the food great, but it’s a peaceful place on the second floor that overlooks bustling Shariati Street. They have a special vegan Iranian dish every day, as well as other types of cuisine. Ask for the vegan mâst-o khiâr (soy yogurt with cucumbers and mint) or panir tofu on pizza if you’re vegan. They speak English, so you shouldn’t have any problem. For dessert, try their vegan chocolate cake- it’s delicious!
Update: I went to Banyan Tree on June 21 and was disappointed to find out it was gone and had been replaced by a hookah lounge 10 days earlier. I’m keeping this here in hopes of discovering they’ve simply relocated.
The food is good at Ananda, but I personally find the atmosphere more pleasing. They offer vegan takes on Iranian dishes and other things like pizza, pasta, and sushi. Everything is labeled vegan, lacto-vegetarian, ovo-lacto, etc. which makes things easier. And the staff is super polite. If you eat here, you can visit Bamika and Govinda right around the corner.
Zamin means “earth” in Persian, and as far as I know, it’s the only 100% vegan restaurant in Tehran and has a very extensive menu- from Iranian food to pizza, pasta, hamburgers, sushi, etc. Everything “meat” is soy-based here. It’s also got a small shop up front where you can buy some vegan groceries.
Pure Vegetarian Cuisine
Pure is located in A.S.P. Towers, and as the name suggests, it’s vegetarian with vegan options.
Located in Shahr-e Ketab Fereshteh (Book City) on Shariati Street, Dijon is neither vegan nor vegetarian, but it does offer options, like kale and quinoa salads (not to mention the lovely atmosphere). The owner picks his veggies fresh from his organic farm just outside Tehran, and even makes videos on Instagramwhere he talks about the day’s harvest.
Iranian Artists’ Forum
The vegetarian restaurant in the Iranian Artists’ Forum can be nice if you’re in that part of town.
And if you’re really in a pinch and there are nothing but kebab joints or jigaraki, order grilled mushrooms and tomatoes with rice or bread. I never thought about this until I took my class to a play. We arrived early, so we went to a jigaraki. I was planning on just watching them and twiddling my thumbs, maybe gnawing on some bread. But then one of them ordered me a skewer of grilled mushrooms and tomatoes. So, you know, always an option.
Useful Persian phrases
Man giâh khoram: I’m vegetarian.
Man veygânam: I’m vegan. Remember to pronounce it more like vey-gân. There was a famous Iranian singer named Vigen (pronounced just like “vegan”), so if you pronounce it the English way, I promise you someone will crack some sort of joke (which gets real old, real quick).
bedoone kashk/morgh/goosht/mâhi/panir: without kashk/chicken/meat/fish/cheese
Still got some questions? Feel free to ask!
Author: Pontia Fallahi