Persian Cuisine: Veganized

By Yasmin Radbod

Typically, vegetarians and vegans love Middle Eastern cuisine. There are so many options, such as baba ghanoush, falafel, hummus, grape leaves, lentils, and pita bread. Of course, there are many Middle Eastern dishes that are off limits to herbivores like me (and you). Persian cuisine, in my experience, is especially heavy on meats: chicken, lamb, steak, and seafood. This article is meant to shatter some of those meat barriers and allow us vegetarians to dive into a much unexplored world of Persian delights.

I am part Iranian and part European-American. My favorite food as a child was saffron basmati rice with plain yogurt. I loved chicken kabobs, dahl, buttered rice, and gormeh sabzi. When I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I was exposed to vegetarianism. Shortly thereafter, I went vegetarian and quickly vegan. I was 15 at the time and did not think I would ever eat most Persian foods again. (It did not bother me at the time because I was just starting to dabble in Indian food!) Once I entered college, however, I became much more nostalgic for Persian cuisine. My mom is an incredible cook, and when I come home from college, she veganizes Persian food for me.


Here are some ground rules for veganizing Persian dishes that require meat. A great replacement for meat in any recipe is seitan. Seitan is derived from the protein portion of wheat. It is an especially great choice if you do not wish to use more processed mock meats, such as mock sausage or meatball products. If you have a gluten sensitivity, however, a completely soy-based product may be best. Textured soy protein (TSP) works great as a meat substitute as well.

You can never go wrong with rice. Rice is so versatile, and it is a staple in Persian cuisine. Rice can be added to any dish, and a little flavoring goes a long way. As aforementioned, rice with yogurt was my favorite food as a child. Today, there are many types of vegan yogurts you can add to rice. Some rice served with yogurt, a little salt, a little oil, and a dash of lemon is delicious. Also, try brown rice instead of pita bread to accompany your dishes. Falafel or chickpea balls served with rice and yogurt is great. I often eat hummus and rice together for a quick snack, too.

For an extra treat, serve ‘tadic.’ It is super easy to make, not to mention delicious! There are two ways to cook tadic. First, if you are using a rice cooker, dribble olive oil (at your discretion) or margarine (any vegan alternative to butter) on the bottom of the rice cooker. The resulting layer of fried rice at the bottom of the rice cooker is called ‘tadic.’ The second option is to fry cooked rice in a pan using olive oil or vegan margarine.

Classic Middle Eastern dishes such as falafel, hummus, and grape leaves are versatile as well. If you are tired of eating the traditional versions of these dishes, try substituting a different bean for the chickpeas or change the spices you use. Instead of making falafel with chickpea flour, use lentils, black beans, or kidney beans, and change the spices according to your preference. You don't have to stuff grape leaves with rice. Try substituting lentils, TVP, or pine nuts with vegetables.

That brings me to my last tip. Pine nuts are an easy way to add a lot of flavor to any dish. They have a crunchy texture and provide a nutty flavor as well. Sauté pine nuts in a little olive oil before adding them to any dish (or adding them to some plain rice for a snack). They will be even more delicious. After sautéing, sprinkle the nuts on top of your dish.

Gormeh Sabzi

(Serves 6)

I am extremely lucky that my mom went vegan and has adapted many dishes to make them both vegan and much more healthful than before. Her first veganized-Persian-dish experiment was with gormeh sabzi. Traditionally, gormeh sabzi calls for steak, but my mom used seitan instead. I could not tell the difference! Gormeh sabzi is stew-like and is best served with rice and some plain vegan yogurt.

  • Approximately 4 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 8 ounces seitan
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 cup chopped scallions
  • 1 cup chopped leeks (optional)
  • 1 cup chopped fresh parsley or ¼ cup dried parsley
  • 1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Water to boil vegetables
  • 2 cups chopped fresh or thawed frozen spinach
  • One 15-ounce can dark red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • 4 Tablespoons lemon juice or to taste

In a large pan, heat the oil and sauté the seitan, onions, scallions, leeks, parsley, and spices until heated. Place the seitan mixture into a pot, add a little water, and bring it to a boil. Add the spinach and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the beans and lemon juice and heat for another 10 minutes. Serve over brown rice and plain vegan yogurt.

Total calories per serving: 217 Fat: 10 grams
Carbohydrates: 18 grams Protein: 14 grams
Sodium: 314 milligrams Fiber: 7 grams

Traditional Dolmeh

(Serves 10)

Dolmeh are simply stuffed grape leaves. They are quite simple — and fun! — to make. These make a great appetizer or party dish, or they can be eaten as a snack anytime.

  • 50 grape leaves
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 3 ½ cups finely chopped onions
  • 1 ½ cups cooked brown rice
  • 1 cup chopped fresh dill
  • ¼ cup finely chopped parsley
  • ½ cup pine nuts
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 4 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2-½ cups water

Place grape leaves in a colander, wash with cold water, and drain. Put the oil into a skillet and heat. Add onions and cook for 10 minutes. Add the rice, dill, parsley, pine nuts, salt, pepper, and cinnamon, and then cook for 5 more minutes. Allow to cool.

Place the grape leaves vein side up on a cutting board and nip off the stems. Place a Tablespoon of the rice mixture onto a leaf. Fold the stem end up over the rice, fold the two sides of the leaf toward the center over the mixture, and then roll the leaf up. Repeat until you have used all of the grape leaves. Filling amounts will vary based on the size of each leaf.

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. In a large baking dish, arrange the rolled dolmeh in layers. Pour lemon juice and water over them, cover, and bake for 1 hour or until tender. Serve cold or warm.

Total calories per serving: 167 Fat: 10 grams
Carbohydrates: 19 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 179 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Ashe Reshte

(Noodle Soup)
(Serves 5-6)

One of my mom's favorite Persian cookbooks is In a Persian Kitchen by Maideh Mazda. When she and I became vegetarian, she started to veganize some of the dishes from this cookbook. One of those dishes was ashe reshte, which is a traditional Persian noodle soup that calls for ground beef. You can use textured vegetable protein (TVP) in place of the meat.

  • 5 cups water
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ cup presoaked black-eyed peas
  • 8 ounces textured vegetable protein (TVP)
  • ¼ cup uncooked lentils
  • 1 small onion, grated
  • 1 cup uncooked whole-grain linguine noodles
  • ½ teaspoon pepper, divided
  • ½ cup chopped fresh parsley or spinach
  • 1 Tablespoon dried mint
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon

Put water in a 3-quart pot and add the salt and black-eyed peas. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the TVP, lentils, onions, noodles, ¼ teaspoon pepper, and parsley or spinach. Allow to simmer for 35 minutes.

Rub the dried mint in your palm until it becomes powdery. Combine mint with the cinnamon and remaining pepper. Just before removing the soup from the heat, add all of the spices to the soup.

Total calories per serving: 274 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 43 grams Protein: 28 grams
Sodium: 133 milligrams Fiber: 12 grams

Yasmin Radbod wrote this article during a summer internship with The Vegetarian Resource Group.