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Letter from France | A Vegetarian and Gluten-Free Guide to Paris

Gabriela Plump for The New York Times
Pousse-Pousse, founded by Lawrence Aboucaya (right), serves gluten-free and vegan dishes including daily soups and seed crackers.

 

Vegetarians in France are odd ducks. Culinary deprivation is neither sexy nor patriotic here. Regional specialties like the pulpy oysters of Isigny, the velvety foie gras of Périgord, the textured andouillette sausage of Lyon and the black-and-white Coucou chickens of Rennes are meant to be savored, not censured. And although there is no European consensus on exactly what the word “vegetarian” means, less than 2 percent of the French identify themselves as such (compared with four times as many Britons and Germans). Rare is the French host who asks guests before they come to dinner if they have dietary preferences or restrictions. Explain that you’re a pescatarian, vegan or even gluten-free and you’re likely to be met with confusion, bewilderment and a pile of raw vegetables on your plate.

 

That said, it’s much easier to dine meat-and-fish-free in Paris than it was a decade ago, when the most you could hope for was brown rice and sautéed vegetables. A slim 2012 book called “Paris Végétarien” lists about 150 restaurants by neighborhood and describes their degree of adherence to fruit-and-vegetable purity. There are vegetarian and vegetarian-friendly blogs; the HappyCow smartphone app searches for vegetarian destinations around the world. In the last year, the French media has been filled with stories about gluten-free eating. (The serious Le Monde describes the approach as essential for preserving the health of gluten-intolerant people; the women’s magazine Femina calls it the newest diet à la mode.)

 

“In Paris, people are pretty square,” says Sati Faulks, a native of Portland, Oregon, who works as a chef at the vegan-and-gluten-free restaurant Pousse-Pousse. “They want pleasure when they eat. So we try to deprive them the best way we can.” It’s easier to be a little bit vegetarian than to go all the way. When the chef Alain Passard announced in 2001 that he was eliminating red meat from his three-star Michelin restaurant L’Arpège to devote himself to the “exploration of vegetables,” he shocked the restaurant world. (He continued to serve white meats and fish.) But it would be wrong to consider L’Arpège a true vegetarian option; vegetarians and especially vegans tend to be disappointed by the lack of spectacular offerings, given the astronomical prices.

 

Pousse-Pousse, a lunchtime place with a huge crystal chandelier, antique mirrors and seating for 16, is at the purest end of the spectrum. The best offerings are a daily concoction of fresh-squeezed juices, puréed soups and dark brown crusty crackers made with a variety of seeds (the recipe is a secret). Even tofu is banned because it is considered too processed. “It was so far out at first that I wasn’t at all successful,” says Lawrence Aboucaya, the founder and owner. “People had no idea what I was doing. I was told I was nuts.” Now she has been featured in magazines like Elle and French Vogue, and Gala Gourmand called her “the organic fairy.”

 

Then there is Soya, which serves vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options in a former faucet factory near the Canal Saint-Martin in the 11th Arrondissement. The all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch offers hot entrees, more than a dozen cold salads and purées and a variety of small-scale desserts. (Reservations are a must.)

 

Another source for vegetarian meals is Asian cuisine. Tien Hiang, a Southeast Asian vegetarian restaurant in a working-class part of the 10th Arrondissement, may take some getting used to. It offers a variety of faux meat and fish dishes like “beef” kabobs, “shrimp” Pad Thai and “chicken” perfumed with black mushrooms. They look remarkably like the real deal and don’t taste half-bad. It’s the only place in Paris where I’ve ever been offered a doggy bag. “Paris has probably five times as many people as Tel Aviv, but not nearly as many vegetarian restaurants,” said Nir Golan, a tourist from Israel who was seated with his wife at the next table. On a good day, he is a vegan and his wife keeps Kosher. He was finding it challenging to eat well — or at all — in Paris.

 

As for Indian food, Saravanaa Bhavan in the 10th Arrondissement is a winner whether you are vegetarian or not. No reservations are taken and the line stretches long on the sidewalk outside on weekend evenings, but the food — mainly dishes from South India — is fresh, the service is crisp and the prices are low. Don’t be put off by the fact that the restaurant is part of a chain. This place is worth the wait. (A South Indian thali with dishes of dhal, vegetables, roti, rice and chutney is 12 euros – about $15, a steal for Paris).

 

Some of the coolest Paris eateries aim to please the fussiest diners. You can sit at the wine bar at Verjus, sip some French wines (some better than others) by the glass and discover vegetarian creativity on its small-plate menu. Dishes include potato gnocchi with brown butter, sage, parmesan and shaved Cremona mushrooms; roast beets, halloumi cheese, warm lentils and arugula; and gyozas of celery root, dan-dan sauce, toasted peanuts, chives and scallions. It is downstairs from the more expensive and oh-so-trendy Verjus restaurant, which tends to attract American tourists with loud voices and fat wallets. One big advantage to the restaurant, however: with advance notice, the young American chef Braden Perkins and his partner Laura Adrian will serve a vegetarian or vegan tasting menu. Most of the requests come from foreigners. “The French aren’t inclined to eat vegetarian unless they’re on a diet,” said Ms. Adrian. “And I don’t think we’ve ever had a French vegan.”

 

If I were to eat vegetarian in Paris, I would turn my fate over to Santiago Torrijos, the Colombian-born owner and head chef of Atelier Rodier, a bistro that opened in the Ninth Arondissement in late 2012. This may sound corny, but Mr. Torrijos acts as if he’s cooking with the most important of ingredients — pleasure — that he urgently must share with you. He is most famous for his beef cheek dish, but always has a vegetarian creation on offer. He concocts a garnish that looks like rich soil made from olive paste, ground almonds, chestnut powder, balsamic vinegar and honey. “I call it ‘dirt,’” he said. “It’s my little secret specialty.”

 

Still, he and his team sometimes like to poke fun at their vegetarian clients. One evening, Jessica Clement, an American graduate student in Paris who writes a vegan baking blog, ordered a special with bouillon. As the waiter began to pour the hot liquid ever so slowly from a small pitcher, over one vegetable after another, he announced, “Ahhh, a wonderful bouillon of … chicken!”

 

“I’m not shy and my heart was pounding and I wanted to scream, ‘No! Stop!’” said Clement. “It’s rare you get these exciting vegetarian meals in Paris. But it happened so quickly …” Then the waiter smiled, satisfied with himself. “Just kidding,” he said.

 

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Rare Glimpses of Iran’s Lost Underworld

Kaveh Golestan, Courtesy Kaveh Golestan
An untitled photograph from Mr. Golestan’s 1975-1977 series showing some of the prostitutes who were confined to Tehran’s red-light district known as the Citadel of Shahr-e No (New City), before the 1979 revolution.

 

PARIS — Kaveh Golestan was 52 on the bright spring day he died. He was killed in a minefield in northern Iraq in 2003 while working as a cameraman with the BBC.

 

Many journalists who encountered Mr. Golestan over his long career (including me) knew him as a hard-news photographer and cameraman. He was one of the finest chroniclers of the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew the shah of Iran, his native country; the nearly eight-year Iran-Iraq war; and Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds. His photographs of the revolution won him the Robert Capa Gold Medal.

 

What is less known is that in the years before the revolution, when Iran was still a Westernized monarchy, Mr. Golestan recorded in stark black-and-white the daily lives of Iran’s dispossessed. An exhibition of one of his most dramatic subjects — prostitutes confined to Tehran’s red-light district known as the Citadel of Shahr-e No (New City) — opens in the Foam Photography Museum in Amsterdam on Thursday and runs through May 4. The complete collection of 61 images will appear as part of a larger photographic, painting and film exhibition on Iran entitled “Unedited History: Iran 1960-2014,” at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris from May 16 to Aug. 24.

 

The Citadel was an old neighborhood of filthy alleyways in Tehran that was established in the 1920s as a red-light district to house scores of prostitutes. In the 1930s and 1940s, the neighborhood became a thriving sex quarter with rampant crime. Female prostitutes walked the streets seminaked. One of the side streets became famous for its young male prostitutes.

 

After the 1953 C.I.A.-led coup that reinstated the shah, the authorities walled off the area, turning it into a ghetto whose inhabitants were almost exclusively female prostitutes and their children; only men were allowed to access it through an iron gate.

 

By the 1970s, about 1,500 prostitutes worked, and most of them lived, in the Citadel. Their daughters often followed them into prostitution; their sons often turned to drugs. Sometimes men came for sex, sometimes to drink, do drugs, watch films or sightsee.

 

In the ghetto, there was a health center, a police station, a social-work office and a crude education service that taught basic reading and writing to women and their children. But the women suffered — from poverty, violence, heroin addiction, syphilis and destitution when they became too old to work.

 

Mr. Golestan’s work is the only existing photographic document of the Citadel. It first appeared as three photo essays in the daily Ayandegan newspaper in 1977; some of the photographs were included in a book of his photographs on Iran (“Kaveh Golestan 1950-2003: Recording the Truth in Iran”) published after his death. In 1978, the photographs were exhibited for 14 days at the University of Tehran, before the show was abruptly shut down without explanation. Later that year, they were briefly displayed in an underground exhibition at the Tehran Art fair.

 

The Amsterdam exhibition includes 45 images and is the first time the same original vintage prints have been shown together since then.

 

Mr. Golestan took notes on everything he photographed, and alongside the photographs, the exhibition will include excerpts from his diaries, newspaper clippings and audio interviews that he conducted in and about the area. The Citadel, he wrote, “confines some of Tehran’s prostitutes within its walls, like a detention center with a tight beehive of tiny cells.” He added, “The lives of the residents have plummeted to the lowest depths of human existence.”

 

He forged friendships with many of the women, photographing them regularly between 1975 and 1977. His images capture their degradation and despair: one woman with ample breasts visible in a low-cut polka-dot dress covers her eyes with one hand; one girl in a black dress with a white Peter-Pan collar and puffy sleeves looks as if she is no older than 14; another woman covers her head and upper body with a veil, but reveals her bare legs.

 

Ceilings leak; carpets are torn; mattresses are threadbare; plaster and paint are peeling. The place looks as if it smells of rot.

 

As the revolution unfolded, radical mobs attacked and set fire to sites they considered symbols of decadence, including the Citadel neighborhood. Most of the women are believed to have escaped, but there was no official investigation and no official count of the casualties. Some of the women were imprisoned and executed by firing squads; others were arrested and “reformed” according to Islamic revolutionary principles. The Citadel site was bulldozed as an act of cultural cleansing and in its place a park with a lake was built.

 

“You look at these photos and these women are looking right back at you and you have the feeling you are quite intimate with them,” said Kim Knoppers, the curator of the exhibition at Foam. “You forget the sense of time and place. The photos become universal images, which resonates in Amsterdam. We are so well-known for our own red-light district.”

 

Mr. Golestan’s original prints remained in his archive in Iran until about two years ago. Vali Mahlouji, a London-based Iranian curator and a distant cousin of Mr. Golestan’s widow, Hengameh, who is also a photographer, sought them out to create a complete archive of Mr. Golestan’s work.

 

The exhibition is the first part of his new project “Archaeology of the Final Decade,” which documents the cultural life of Iran in the years before the 1979 revolution. He intends to expand it into a nonprofit foundation to revive Iran’s historical and cultural material that was destroyed, banned or underrepresented in the Islamic Republic. He has opened discussions with museums and galleries in the United States to take the Golestan show there.

 

“The mission is to bring back and put into circulation artistic work that went underground because of the revolution and the policies that followed,” said Mr. Mahlouji in a telephone interview from London. “We want to create a link between where we were in Iran in the 1960s and 1970s and what happened after Iran’s cultural revolution of the 1980s. We’re starting by putting Kaveh on the artistic map.”

 

The content of Mr. Golestan’s exhibit might appeal to the authorities as it shows the “decadence” of the Old Regime; but it would have to be rejected because the women in the photographs have not covered their hair. (Despite the fact that prostitution in Iran’s Islamic Republic is illegal and punishments severe, the practice still flourishes.)

 

For colleagues and friends of Mr. Golestan, the exhibition is a fitting way to keep his spirit — and his art — alive. “He was driven by a social conscience and he always found a way to express it in his photography,” said Reza Deghati, the Iranian-French photojournalist and philanthropist who worked side-by-side with Mr. Golestan in Iran during the revolution. “His work is a real eye-opener.”

 

Mr. Deghati worked for Newsweek, Mr. Golestan for Time, but they often traveled together, and for long stretches were the only resident photographers working for American publications.

 

“I never had the sense there was competition between us,” Mr. Deghati said. “We were much too young for that.”

 

“Kaveh Golestan: The Citadel” runs at the Foam Photography Museum through May 4. The complete collection of 61 images will appear as part of a wider exhibition on Iran titled “Unedited History: Iran 1960-2014,” at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris from May 16 to Aug. 24.

 

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