Surviving as a Vegan in Armenia

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.

“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.”
“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?” (Photo by Jordan Takvorian)

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.

Basooc dolma (photo by Arpine Kozmanyan)
Basooc dolma (photo by Arpine Kozmanyan)

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.

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Lena Tachdjian has been living and working in Armenia since August 2011. She has a degree in philosophy and is a certified nutritional practitioner, having graduated with honors from the Institute of Holistic Nutrition. She blogs about nutrition and travel at http://thetravelingchamelian.blogspot.com. She writes regularly for the Armenian Weekly.

26 Comments

  1. Meat? What you mean you don’t eat no meat?!

    Actually, that’s ok, I guess you can just have the lamb! :)

    (one of the best scenes in My Big Fat Greek Wedding)

  2. Hi Lena! Congrats on your work. I understand vegetarianism, but have a hard time trying to accept pure veganism. Some time ago, when it was not as popular as it is today, my bother went vegan and as he did not take all the supplements (it was not known at the time) he had a terrible health problem, specially for lack of vitamin B complex. Historically, Armenians are hard-core carnivors, which is also unhealthy indeed!. As a nutritionist, dont you think the way to go is right in the middle? A balanced diet, with natural and seasonal food, with no need of chemical supplements to provide what nature already has in hand for us. Just a thought!

  3. Interesting article. My husband is Vegan also and surviving 2 weeks in Armenia was somehow difficult, especially because everyone we met, everywhere we were invited, he was bombarded with thousands of questions and “strange” looks. I enjoyed reading this article and I understand the feeling very well.

  4. Real Yummy Bagels will deliver the local tofu right to your door. I’m sure they could put you in touch with the farmer too :) They are super nice and have plenty of vegan and vegetarian products. Go Green Armenia is their sister company. Their Facebook page is http://www.facebook.com/rybryb8

    • Dear Lara,
      Thanks for letting everyone know about our RYB TOFU! We make that fresh when orders are placed. There is no added preservatives nor additives!!! So it is soybean at its best: TOFU!!!! Yes we do have many other vegan items, like Vegan peanut butter cookies, so check us out!!! THANKS LARA!!! :)

  5. Hi Vivianna! I think with a lot of planning and research, veganism can be a healthy alternative! While I was in Canada I was not taking any supplements and getting all my necessary vitamins and minerals from food itself – I was especially paranoid about B12 but had check-ups often and my levels were in the normal range. But I definitely wouldn’t recommend it unless a person has done all their research and makes sure to get all the nutrients they require – “bread and potatoes” simply won’t cut it :)

    Thank you Vera, I’m glad you can relate!

    And Big Fat Armenian Wedding, that is my favourite scene as well! It re-plays all too often in Armenia :)

  6. I understand vegetarianism from health and moral point of views but I don’t get vegans. It cant be healthy, it makes your life difficult and I don’t see the moral aspect here. It’s way overboard. So, I’m glad one vegan was saved in Armenia :)

    • Hi Armen, I too am vegan but haven’t been back to Armenia since I left 40 years ago. For the most people and those that stick to it, its the ethics thing, just plain and simple believing that their is too much cruelty towards animals in this word and of course believing that animals were not put on this earth for us to eat them. They feel everything we feel and fight the knife every second that they are killed. There is no reason to support that industry at all. I have been vegan four years now and do not miss meat or would ever go back to meat. At first it was hard because of all the Armenian dishes, but if you have your heart in the right place, you can stick to it, plus a lot of my health issues disappeared.

  7. I tell everyone that Armenians have very diverse vegan menus, after all during lent we eat vegan (and not vegeterian like catholics)and yes our mothers used to cook very nice kuftes topig anoushabours and so on too many to count. maybe if you tell them your “lenting” they will respond more positive way….

  8. I have been a vegan for 24 years and was a lacto-vegetarian for 10 years before that. I survived very well in Armenia as there was a huge farmer’s market not far from my hotel where I went every day. The waiters at the hotel also obliged me, since I speak Armenian (They understood my Western Armenian Dialect.) Mainly bread and potatoes? The author has not studied vegan diets adequately. My doctors regularly attest to my excellent health. In Armenia, I was subjected to stupid comments that I had renounced the Christian faith and become a Hindu. There is evidence that Jesus was a vegan who had been influenced by his cousin John the Baptist and the Essenes. Enough with Armenian litmus tests.

  9. I had trouble just as a vegetarian when I was there back in 2000. Nobody understood what that meant nor why I wouldn’t put animal meat into my mouth. Seems like it’s changed there, a little.

  10. Sorry, that is a bs argument: “you can see the cows, it is not like Canada.” Sure they are treated comparatively, slightly better. But look at all the fracas and debates over human execution in countries like the USA that still have this barbaric practice. We don’t even have ethical methods to really kill humans, let alone cows that are treated poorly, as a mere means to an end: producing meat.

    “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.”
    That is not what veganism is about. It is about putting the lives of animals above the taste preferences of meat addicts. What you are spouting is what I call the nonsense “Consumer choice doctrine” that puts primary importance on the “rights” of selfish humans to develop a taste for meat and milk over the rights of animals and humans to live in peace(since meat consumption exploits humans as well).

    There is no good reason for consuming dairy. Here you can listen to Dr. John McDougall debate, Greg Miller, a National Dairy Council spokesmen(Mp3), and confront him with all the research on the negative health impact of dairy. Miller was in constant retreat and had no proper response to the research studies being cited. A whole foods, plant based diet is the healthiest diet out there. The more animal products you eat, the sicker you become, not to mention the ethical and environmental impacts.

  11. The one spouting nonsense is you.

    {“…selfish humans to develop a taste for meat and milk over the rights of animals and humans to live in peace”.}

    Are you completely disconnected from reality ?
    You have never seen how carnivores take down ungulates in the wild and start feeding on them _while_ they are still alive ?
    You have never seen a shark bite a large chunk of meat out of a seal or chomp it in half ?
    What fantasyland are you living in ?

    When was the last time animals in the wild lived in peace ?
    Do humans induce lions to take down a wildebeest and start tearing chunks of ‘steaks’ out of it while the poor thing is still kicking, trying to get up ?
    Do humans induce lions to kill hyenas – not for food, but for revenge – for the latter killing lion cubs ?
    Have you never seen a cute little baby fawn hunted down by a mother cheetah, deliberately slightly wounded, and then given to her cubs to learn how to hunt and kill ? (read: slowly tortured to death)
    Get real.

    {“A whole foods, plant based diet is the healthiest diet out there. The more animal products you eat, the sicker you become, not to mention the ethical and environmental impacts.”}

    The mother of all nonsense statements.

    Excessive consumption of factory produced, GMO-corn fed, anti-biotic and growth hormone injected beef certainly has deleterious effect on health.
    But grass-fed beef raised on a pasture is some of the healthiest, most nutrition packed food for humans.
    And many of the modern diseases plaguing humans have been traced to grain-based diets (e.g. wheat).

    {The more animal products you eat, the sicker you become,}

    Amazing how humans managed to survive and thrive for hundreds of thousands of years consuming mainly game meat and small amounts of wild vegetation and tubers.

    Selfish or not, humans evolved to be omnivores.
    We did not develop a taste for meat yesterday.
    You want to live as a vegan or vegetarian – good for you.
    But don’t present yourself as being morally superior to others.

    Your very act of living is at the expense of other living things.
    The water you drink, and cook and wash with comes from dams that killed off other living things relying on free-flowing rivers.
    The grains and vegetables you consume where grown on plowed fields, from which native animals were chased away to starve to death slowly due to loss of habitat. Or killed outright via agricultural equipment.
    The water diverted to agricultural fields to grow things is taken from somewhere where it previously sustained wildlife.
    You living in a city, in a house is at the expense of other living creatures who lost their habitat and died slow, painful deaths due to starvation.

    The only way for humans not to impact other living things is to disappear.
    Even then, the Earth won’t change to the idyllic “live in peace” fantasyland you imagine it to be.
    There were carnivorous dinosaurs which were feeding on herbivorous dinosaurs millions of years before humans appeared on the scene.

  12. I’m not a vegan or a vegetarian but find it odd that those who practice veganism and vegetarianism think that that lifestyle is healthier than an omnivor’s. From my limited research, I have not seen a consensus of scientific evidence which suggests this is a healthier practice than having a mixed diet.
    Furthermore, those who pursue veganism or vegetarianism based on “moral” reasons make tenuous arguments based on appeal to emotion. I don’t know of a good philosophical reason why eating meat, in and of itself, is bad. Anyone have more insight please enlighten me.

  13. Dear Lena,
    For some 6/7 yrs I have been trying to convince compatriots in Ra to purchase small slow moving,say 12/14 miles per hours (diesel engined ,or petrol)vehicles that are about ten thousand euros ea.Morevoer ,even in Spain these are equipped with hour-counting clocks, so as the farmers can rent them from the village head or supervisor per hour.Do not have to own them.While I lived there near a qtr century I saw how all over the Farmers utilized these in order to bring their products to Provincial centres etc.
    As I/we all know well at present in RA the farm products(incl grapes9 are purchased from farmers at very LOW cost.If …if..
    You can start a Fund raising campaign there, i can follow up here stateside,so that at least 2 units can be purchased and shipped over to RA in one 20 ft container.On unit will cost more freight.Indeed <i have approached Ministry of Agro in Yerevan and a host of others and also participated in 2 Fairs fully and one half time(without machinary ,just posters and cataloge)No dice! I ahve to bring them over have them serve the prupose , in order that we can then start importing wholescale(privately or even…if the Gov. please place some of those Euro loans in this project!!!!

  14. ADDENDUM,
    Dear Lena,
    Reason i put in my piece above is because AW -above- describes how your GO Green project/objective aims at Farmers(themselves9 bringing their fare to town.I take it in order not to be subjected to selling their products at low cost to 3rd parties and/or Wine factories….

  15. Great write up. My wife and I have both gone Vegan while on the road.
    We have been travelling for the past two years and have had no problems with any of the countries we have been to yet. Bhutan had a lot of cheese in their meals so we would have to eat Indian food most of the time we were there. We are both very interested in heading to Armenia and this just calmed our nerves a bit about being Vegan.

  16. You should definitely come to India. It will be a paradise for all veggie lovers!
    However, it is interesting how many states in India have banned beef, but continue to allow the torture cows for their dairy products.

  17. “Lena jan, I can understand not eating animals, but…….”

    I do hope they realize that ‘Jan’ is not an Armenian word. It comes from the Turkish word ‘Canim’, meaning ‘my life’. But the way everyone in Armenia uses it you would think it’s authentic Armenian….amazing!

    • I don’t see why that is so important to point out as if it is something negative. But if you knew Armenian, you would know that “im” is an Armenian word, which is “my”, and which is also where Turkish derives its suffix from, in addition to the fact that “Jan” may have derived from Persian. But then Persian is part of the Indo-European language group, and we know the original Indo-European language originated in ancient Armenia and may itself be simply the old Armenian language which broke off into many branches into Europe, Iran and India.

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