As strange as it might seem, my choice to become a vegan was, in hindsight, the main driving force for me to finally make my first trip to Armenia.
I arrived in Armenia on Aug. 25, 2011, as a strict straightedge vegan, worrying if I would be able to remain one. I had become a vegetarian about nine years back, in my first year of university after watching one short documentary clip about factory farms. Veganism soon followed.
Although my decision to become vegan (or vegetarian) had nothing to do with health, but rather ethics, an interest in health naturally followed, and that interest led me to enroll in the fast-paced and full-time program at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition. The only thing that kept me sane during the very intense program was the thought of a vacation somewhere I had never been before. I put in all of my remaining and limited energy into deciding where I should go to celebrate, and considered finally making my first trip to the motherland. A friend suggested Birthright Armenia, and I set it in stone by buying my round-trip ticket.
Although it was veganism that led me to Armenia, I soon wondered if Armenia would accept my veganism.
While lots of Armenian foods I knew growing up were “vegan-by-default,” such as vospov kufteh, vospov abour, etc., family and friends warned me, saying no one would understand what it was in Armenia. Since my host family would be cooking for me, I started to worry that I would seem too demanding in what I could and couldn’t eat. I would e-mail the Birthright coordinator with questions every now and then, and in my misguided attempt to not seem annoying, would always add a “P.S. I’m vegan” at the end, in case no one saw it in my application form. I even included it in my health application as a “condition,” which I am only bringing up now so it can’t be used to blackmail me in the future.
I bought vegan protein bars that tasted like play-doh (I was in denial), and arrived in Armenia with a luggage that was 75 percent full of supplements. My host sister let me know that they had had a couple of vegetarians in the past, so my veganism wouldn’t be a problem. Relieved, I took my iron and B12 supplement and went to sleep.
During my first week in Armenia, on the designated Birthright Armenia tour, I met the first (and only other) person who was vegan. He worked at an organization my friend would be volunteering for, and let me know there were rumors of a farmer making tofu somewhere in Armenia. I have yet to find this farmer.
While many of my breakfasts and dinners in the months that followed tended to revolve heavily on potatoes and bread, I was also introduced to the most wonderful vegan dish I have ever eaten, anywhere: basooc dolma. It is served in a pickled cabbage leaf and contains lentils, chickpeas, red kidney beans, and grains, mixed with spices. It is served cold and sometimes with dried apricot. It is a vegan’s dream come true—a complete protein packed with iron and B12 (pickled cabbage), and is delicious. I am still learning to master making it.
Although there were many vegan options when eating out in Armenia, and there is a lot more accessibility to whole foods straight from the farms, I did start to become sick much more often than usual. Before Armenia, I couldn’t remember the last time I had a cold, but in Armenia I started getting sick almost every other week. Perhaps my immune system was weakened from a lack of protein and iron, as a result of many potato- and bread-based meals. I began focusing on eating the protein bars I had brought with me that were meant to be used in “emergency” cases, but started feeling like I was missing out on something when I would choose a protein bar that no one would dare share with me over a traditional breakfast with my host family.
At work, my co-workers were all very interested in veganism and enjoyed introducing me as a “strict vegetarian” to anyone who came into our office, no matter how irrelevant. One day we went to Lukashin farm in Armavir marz to celebrate the grape harvest with some good friends in the area, and they brought out wine, bread, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, madzoun, honey, and khorovadz. I collected some tomatoes, cucumbers, and bread, and at some point realized everyone was staring at my plate, waiting for some sort of explanation. Our host, Vardkes, went to put khorovadz on my plate and I declined saying that I didn’t eat meat. He understood, and went for the cheese. I told him I also didn’t eat cheese, and before I could stop the awkwardness by saying I didn’t eat dairy products all together, he tried to put the madzoun on my plate as well. This created extra attention on my plate and the discussion began. I explained veganism, explained my personal reasons for being one, and confirmed that I did in fact eat plenty of food. I showed everyone the vegan protein bar and nuts that I always carried, which was met with laughter—even from me. Then I was asked about the conditions of dairy cows in Canada. I explained it to them, remembering to say vad instead of kesh, and was then asked, “Lena jan, I can understand not eating animals, but look around you—you can see the cows walking around freely. Yes we eat them eventually, but do you think how we get the milk is the same as in Canada? Armenia is not as big as Canada. You can see and visit the farms, like this one. Don’t you see a difference here?”
I had already been thinking about these questions since I had been visiting farms weekly, and as a result, had nothing to retort with. Luckily, someone spilled their wine over the table and the silence was broken, the attention diverted, and I was able to sneak in some almonds. Still, I reflected more on this on the way back to Yerevan.
I started to realize how I was allowing being a vegan actually define me, even in a completely different environment without critically examining the current situation I was in.
Once I decided to extend my initial three-month visit to Armenia indefinitely (two years and counting!), I made the decision to switch back to vegetarianism while in Armenia. I was interested in trying some staples of local Armenian food, and I do not think there is anything inherently wrong with consuming eggs or dairy products from animals that are not crammed into battery cages or in crates barely larger than themselves. I decided to stop limiting my experience based on how I perceived myself to be in terms of a title, and decided to do what felt right in the context I was in.
So I tried my first egg from Lori, had my first honey comb from Vayots Dzor, and my first spoonful of madzoun from Ashtarak.
It is completely possible to remain vegan in Armenia, and now that I cook for myself I do tend to be mostly vegan again, using my blender to puree lentil and vegetable soups, make almond milk or green smoothies with local beet leaves and spinach. I just no longer have the paranoid need to carry around gross vegan protein bars with me everywhere.
And to those who still think veganism is too difficult or rare in Armenia, the first vegan festival was held in Yerevan this year, attended by just under 100 people! Perhaps I will meet the tofu-making farmer after all.
Lena Tachdjian has been living and working in Armenia since August 2011. In 2013, she co-founded Go Green Armenia, which aims to support farmers by selling and marketing their produce in Yerevan. She has a degree in philosophy and is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner, graduating with Honors from the Institute of Holistic Nutrition with a certificate in clinical detoxification. She blogs about nutrition and travel at http://thetravelingchamelian.blogspot.com.