Persian Vegan Food

I didn’t intend to do food posts but I do wish that the search terms “Persian/Iranian + vegan” would bring up more results, so here it is.

A vegan Iranian friend invited me to celebrate Norooz at her house this year and this is the vegan dinner with which we celebrated new beginnings and the new year.

For Norooz, it is traditional to eat fish with herbed rice. We stuck to tradition – somewhat. Tradition is not an excuse for cruelty, so we upheld both tradition and compassion and enjoyed some mock fish. We also had ash reshteh, mast khiar, stuffed eggplant that’s not pictured, torshi, olives and other sides, salad and baklava for dessert. Let me say again for the search engines that this was an entirely vegan Persian dinner.

The main chef was my friend’s 73-year old vegan Persian mother, a woman who loves animals and has participated in several protests with Direct Action Everywhere. Protest is not only for the young, and veganism is not only for the West. There is a notion that elderly people, working-class people, non-Westerners, and people of color are stuck in their ways. They can’t understand animal liberation and they won’t give up their favorite dishes. It’s not true though, people from all demographics are choosing plant-based diets, for health, spirituality, sustainability, and for compassion.

A few years ago, I exchanged a few pleasantries with some students at work. One of them asked me where my name was from. I said Iran and without missing a beat, he asked if Iranian food had a lot of meat. It seemed like such a random question: he didn’t know that I was vegan and we were not in a place with food or any reference to food. He might have been speaking of food with his friends but from my vantage point his question came out of nowhere. Then again, not entirely out of nowhere.

At the time, San Francisco was experiencing the full force of the foodie obsession with meat done right and with the appreciation of tradition and culture as cardinal virtues come mealtime. I was working at a yoga studio that sold copies of the book Nourishing Traditions, which positioned Tradition with a capital T against the unbalanced and déraciné take on food of the modern West. It relied on a few meat-heavy traditions to convey a generic and universalist idea of Tradition and forgotten wisdom, and its populistic tone was effective in delegitimizing vegetarianism in the minds of many readers.

The man who asked about Iran was from Argentina, which is one of the few countries that rivals the US with its obsession with meat. This could explain his enthusiasm for meat and perhaps his implicit adoption of the notion that of course, all traditions are meat based. In the case of Iran, this isn’t true. While most Iranian dishes contain some meat or dairy, I contend that Iranian cuisine is one of the most easily veganizable. It does not seem to have been developed with meat as the central feature. If you take a steak dinner and remove the steak, you’re left with some potatoes and a sprig of parsley. On the other hand, if you take adas polo or ghormeh sabzi and omit the meat, you’re left with complex flavors and satisfying dishes in their own right.

Amongst the Diaspora and in Iran, meat is now consumed often and in relatively large quantities but this is a recent development, as in most of the Global South. The chunks of meat in khoreshs have gotten bigger and more numerous, kebab has become more than an occasional treat. I once asked my dad how often he ate meat as a child and he answered with the impatient tone reserved for stupid questions, “people didn’t have money in those days!” By the standards of a third-world country in the 1950s, my dad wasn’t poor. He had shoes and my grandfather had a decent white-collar job, but meat was not eaten daily. I might as well have asked if everyone had a car.

Remove meat and dairy from Persian food and you still have one of the most sophisticated and flavorful cuisines in the world. But perhaps you have money for meat and you want that umami richness – I get it. It’s a great opportunity to play with new ingredients. Make kookoo with chickpea flour and black salt, learn to make your own nut-based feta and seitan, and divert that meat budget to wonderful plant-based alternatives.

I am not a stickler for authenticity. We’ve seamlessly incorporated tomatoes (“foreign berries”) from Mexico and potatoes from Peru into our khoreshs – why not also adopt the delicious mock meats that our East Asian neighbors have developed for centuries? This Norooz, my friend’s mom tasted mock fish for the first time and said “Why would anybody kill a poor fish when they can eat this delicious food instead?” Why indeed.

It’s often thought that non-Westerners can’t and won’t change their ways, but perhaps more questionable is the idea that they shouldn’t. Westerners have profited off the destruction of cultures and economies around the world and now want to be the guardians of authenticity and maintaining others’ traditions. For the benefit of whom? Somehow it’s always imperative to “experience culture” when it comes to tasting grilled llama or roasted pig but there’s less enthusiasm about partaking in the authentic experience of eating beans three times a day. The westernization of diets also doesn’t seem to concern many when it takes the form of skyrocketing milk and meat consumption, which is the problem that most people are actually experiencing. So what is this trend really about?

The former colonialists want to display their now-enlightened relationship to non-Western peoples by the gratuitous consumption of their folklore. Meanwhile, peoples’ food systems, livelihoods and lifestyles are still being eroded because imperialism has simply taken new forms. If you want to resist this, there are better ways to do it than fashioning yourself into an Anthony Bourdain and shaming people away from animal liberation.

Let’s not selectively uphold traditions – or our idea of them – to resist social change. The beautiful culinary traditions of the world can and should still be appreciated as we build a world where animals are friends, not food. As all living traditions, cuisines continually evolve, and what better reason to do so than compassion?

 

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Dogma

To never eat pigs, cows and chickens is not inherently more dogmatic than to never eat dogs, cats or dolphins. Vegans have often been told that they are dogmatic simply for following a different set of social norms than that of the majority. This is normal – it’s social conservatism in action.

Minorities are commonly portrayed as intransigent and extreme, but on closer examination, social psychologists have found that they tend to be less so than the mainstream. Minorities must make an effort to be likeable because it is so easy to ignore and dismiss them. Ideological or religious minorities often put effort into being amenable and moderate in the expression of their views, precisely to avoid scaring people away or being accused of fanaticism.

Someone who follows dominant social norms has no qualms in being strict and uncompromising when it comes to their ethics. Offer them dog meat and you’ll see what I mean. Traveling in a country where dog meat is consumed won’t sway them. A traveling vegan, on the other hand, will be fraught with anxiety over how to avoid animal products discreetly and without offending; they may even decide to “cheat” while traveling. If they stick to the behavior that is consistent with their empathy and view of animals, they are perceived as unwilling to go beyond rigid personal rules and dogma to partake in the local culture.

If a child were to tell you that dogs and cats are our friends, that we should be kind to them, and that this entails not being physically violent with them, you would appreciate that their parents have taught them kindness and the capacity to care for others. If a child were to tell you that cows and pigs are our friends, that we should be kind to them, and that this entails not killing and eating them, you might think their parents should hold off on instilling their personal dogma into their young children’s minds.

As vegans, the application of our empathy and ethics to our behavior is not more dogmatic than the way the majority applies their empathy and ethics to their behavior. They feel empathy for dogs – they don’t eat them. We feel empathy for dogs and cows – we don’t eat either of them. Straightforward. Consistency in one’s behavior is not dogma; to avoid questioning one’s behavior is. As a minority though, it’s hard to hold on to that consistency. Many vegans yield to the idea of moderation, in effect giving up veganism. Others become timid about expressing their views. These outcomes are the exact intended results of the dogmatic label.

When vegans are dismissed or made timid, relevant conversations are avoided. A relevant conversation would be about how we see our rightful relationship to non-human animals and why we draw a line between farm animals and other animals.

Dogma is the unwillingness to examine the norms and beliefs to which one subscribes. Ironically, dismissing veganism as dogma serves to uphold the dogma of animal consumption. The distinction between cat and cow does not hold up to reason or science, so it must be protected by avoiding discussion. As animal rights activists increasingly force conversations to happen, breakthroughs can only follow. Veganism will no longer seem a restriction of the foods one eats, but instead the common-sense recognition that animals aren’t food.

 

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Racism in Latin America

This weekend I saw expressed again an idea that pops up on occasion: that race doesn’t matter in Latin America.

It’s contrary to what I’ve witnessed and, frankly, to common sense. Race, in Latin America, is not an explicit and ever-present identifier in the same way that it is in the US. However, racism exists, and therefore, race matters. It may be that in some places, the distinction between white and mestizo is not as marked as in the US, hence the misunderstanding about the importance of race in general. But even there, inequality of representation in political and media spheres does indicate that whiteness matters.

Indigenous people are largely disenfranchised; Black people are often spoken about in ways deemed grossly politically incorrect in the US. Latin America is a huge and diverse region so I’ll just briefly speak about the place that I’ve started exploring for my research on food: Chiapas.

In San Cristobal, indigenous people were not permitted to walk on the sidewalk until as recently as the 1970s. They had to walk on the road instead. In Las Doñas de Chiapas, a collection of interviews of Chiapanecan women, patriarchy is a powerful current that creates a unifying narrative of the lives of all the women. However, there are also stark differences. Indigenous women speak of the difficulties of accessing sufficient food while one of the white women recounts traveling on the back of an “Indio Chamula”* in her childhood. This was the common method of transportation for her class and generation. Most of these women are still alive; this is very recent history.

The marginalization and poverty of indigenous people in Mexico is the framework of much of the country’s social assistance. It must be visible if one is to have any functioning understanding of the dietary and cultural effects of food aid. Likewise, exploring common representations of indigenous people, their food, and their bodies, is central to understanding the transformation of their food culture through milk distribution.

In San Cristobal, I spoke to many non-indigenous Mexicans about what indigenous people ate, and why. Their answers were overwhelmingly negative and one-dimensional. Portraying indigenous diets as inherently deficient, and pinning this more on culture than on economy, has profound ramifications. The government’s decision to promote milk as a nutritional panacea instead of implementing policies that would encourage consumption of native foods is, of course, primarily about profit. However, policies, assistance programs and public health discourse do not happen in a social vacuum. And the social context in which these are formed is fraught with racism. I will discuss this in upcoming posts as I analyze the relationship between social representations of foods, social identity, and the transformation of food culture.

*Indigenous man from the municipality of Chamula.

 

 

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