Exploring a new country is surprising and fun but it is best done on a full stomach! The last thing travelers want to be worried about is whether they can find wholesome food. Although true for all travelers alike, this is a particular concern for vegetarians.
For those planning a holiday to Iran, be prepared for an onslaught of vegetarian-friendly, delicious foods and drinks that your taste buds will hanker for, long after you’ve returned home.
Can I Find Vegetarian Food in Iran?
Ok, so before we go on I must admit two things. Firstly, your stock standard, traditional Iranian fare is charcoaled meat and rice. Secondly, most Iranians consider a meal to be incomplete without meat. With that said, some traditional dishes and sides are vegetarian and vegetarian fast food and street food will also be available.
Breakfast will be a breeze for vegetarians. A typical Iranian breakfast includes flat bread, white cheese, omelet, fresh herbs, tomato, cucumber, pickles, fresh fruits, and tea. There is an increasing number of Iranians turning vego for moral and ecological reasons. You can easily find vegetarian restaurants in Tehran and other cities throughout Iran.
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Dining in Traditional Restaurants
Traditional Iranian cuisine is jam-packed full of flavor, so dining at a traditional Iranian restaurant is an absolute must for all tourists. Picture this: beautiful day beds (takht in Farsi) draped in Persian rugs and cushions set into mosaicked alcoves. On these day beds, diners sit cross-legged to eat their meal and afterwards can comfortably recline to digest their food over some tea and perhaps puff on a water pipe (there will also be tables for those diners who are more comfortable on a chair). To add to the atmosphere, some traditional restaurants will also have live music in the evenings and weekends. Many historical buildings like old bathhouses have been converted to beautiful restaurants and tea-houses (two perfect examples of this exist in the old bazaars in Kashan and Shiraz).
Tourists will usually be given a menu in English and the waiter will most likely speak a little English too. From the menu, you will see that most dishes contain meat. Meat in Farsi means lamb or beef so vegetarians might need to explain that they do not eat fish and chicken either. If nothing on the menu takes your fancy, you can say, “man giahkhar hastam” (literally meaning, I am a herbivore) and the waiter may tell you some other options.
Some amazingly delicious vegetarian dishes to ask about at traditional restaurants include:
- Ash (A pronounced as in call)– recipes vary but generally speaking a wholesome soup with herbs, noodles, beans, and chickpeas topped with fried onions and a soured yogurt sauce
- Kashke bademjoon – creamy eggplant dip served with traditional bread
- Kookoo sabzee – a fried herb and egg cake
- Mirza ghasemi – tomato and eggplant dish served with rice or bread
In addition to these dishes, each province will have its own unique vegetarian cuisine. It is uncommon for foods to be cooked with animal fats, however animal oil (roghan e hayvani in Farsi) is occasionally added to rice in some restaurants, so just ask. If all else fails, a vegetarian traveler can rely on staples found in every restaurant such as bread, yogurt dip, olives marinated in walnut and pomegranate (zeytoon parvardeh) and simple salads.
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What about Street Food?
Street food is very popular and very affordable in Iran. Vegetarian tourists should take advantage of the many suitable street food options. Depending on the season you will find vendors offering barbequed corn (balal), skewered sweet beetroot (laboo), spiced fava bean (baghali) and walnuts in brine (gerdu).
A welcome sight in summer will be the countless fresh juice bars and ice creameries. Carrot juice with ice cream (ab havij bastini) is a perfect way to cool off in the summer or try a sour cherry or pomegranate juice with spicy golpar and salt. If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, cool off with a traditional sharbat drink (a natural cordial drink in limitless flavors). My recommendation is rosewater and basil seed sharbat! Fast food options like sandwich bars serving falafel and kookoo sabzee are great for a quick bite!
A great place to graze on street food in Tehran is the iconic Si Tir Street. Come evening, this cobblestoned, museum-lined street in downtown Tehran is closed off to cars and gets packed with food trucks, street vendors, and hungry Tehranis. Another good spot for vegetarian street food in Tehran is Darband, a quaint mountain village on the northern outskirts of the city.
Check Out the Bakeries and Patisseries
If you like bread, pastries, cakes, and cookies, Iran is your heaven! Stop into a bakery to try one of the many kinds of traditional flat breads like barbari, sangek or lavosh. Generally speaking, bakeries bake in the morning and late afternoon so at these times the bread is freshest. You can buy all sorts of cakes and pastries (shirini in Farsi) from shirini forooshis. Alongside croissants, danishes and cream cakes you can try traditional baklava, walnut cookies, saffron toffee brittle or Yazd cake. If you’ve been invited to someone’s house a guest, it is appropriate to take shirini as a gift for your host. Shirini is best served with Iranian black tea!
How About Vegans?
Vegans will have more difficulty finding suitable food than vegetarians; however, most restaurants and cafes will have some simple vegan food on offer like lentil rice dishes (adas polo) and salads.
You might need to get creative and find your own snacks to supplement your diet. It may surprise some travelers to discover that many fruits and nuts such as pomegranate, peach, fig, apricot, walnut, pistachio, almond, and date were first cultivated in this region and, as a result, these are outrageously good! All across Iran, you can easily find delicious fresh fruit and vegetables at very reasonable prices. Shops selling ajil, a collective term for dried fruit and nuts in Farsi, are also easily found in any city. As a last resort, in supermarkets, you’ll find foods you recognize and most pre-packaged food will have the ingredients listed in English.
A Guide to Vegetarian Restaurants in Iran
So you know what to eat, now where to eat! This is by no means a comprehensive guide, but here are a few tried and tested vegetarian and vegan spots across Iran.
- Zamin Vegan and Vegetarian Café, Tehran – 100% vegan café, funky and cozy, good place to spot hipster Tehranis
- Gilaneh Restaurant, Tehran – traditional-style restaurant, Iran’s Gilan province is a UNESCO region for culinary diversity, a variety of specialty vegetarian dishes, high-quality food, but a bit pricey
- Iranian Artists Forum, Tehran – alfresco dining, a comprehensive vegetarian menu, popular with tourists, check out gallery whilst there
- Café Ferdowsi, Shiraz – downtown location, great coffee, chilled atmosphere, free WIFI and several vego options
- Grandma’s table, Esfahan –catering especially for vegans and vegetarians, well priced, no-frills decor
- Azadegan Café, Esfahan – traditional Esfahani style, best omelet EVER, great atmosphere, just off main square
- Hamman-e-Khan Coffee Shop, Kashan – located in the bazaar, an old subterranean bathhouse, cool place to escape the city, vegetarian fare available
Iranians are notoriously friendly toward tourists, so when in need, just ask for a local’s recommendation!