Often referred to as a ‘Vegetarian’s Paradise’, India is known to have a plethora of dishes that can please any veggie-loving palate. But how does a vegan fare in this dairy-loving nation?
A peek into history tells us that dairy was a rarity before the White Revolution (1970), which flooded the market with cows’ and buffaloes’ milk. This means that many traditional Indian vegetarian recipes, dating back hundreds of years, were actually made with very little or no dairy since it was not accessible to all.
What this also means is that if you’re following a vegan lifestyle, eating in India should not be very daunting if you know your way around Indian cuisine.
Regional Flavours of India
Indian dishes can be roughly identified by the geographic areas they originated from—North, South, East, and West. North Indian cuisine tends to be spicier, heartier, and richer with flavourful spices, while the more timid South Indian cuisine shines with a lot of coastal inspirations like coconuts and black pepper. The West has adapted a bit of both North and South India and made it its own, while the East sees some North Indian influences with more pungent flavours.
Even though many similarities are seen among the cuisines that come from the various states of India, each state offers its own unique take on dishes inspired by recipes handed down through various generations. There are also many dishes that are specific to certain states because they have evolved from what was traditionally grown in that area.
The best part is that many of these traditional dishes are vegan or can be made vegan with a few swaps.
Vegan Breakfast Dishes in India
Breakfast dishes in India are mostly savoury and are made with either rice or wheat. Here’s a list of Indian breakfasts that are inherently vegan or can be made vegan.
Poha: This flattened rice dish is a popular breakfast option, especially in the Western and Central parts of India. Cooked with onions, potatoes, and a medley of spices, it is a perfect way to kickstart your day.
Idli: Hailing from the South, idlis are fluffy, steamed rice cakes served with coconut chutney and sambar. These gluten-free delights are not only healthy but also incredibly satisfying.
Dosa and its varieties: Dosas are crispy, thin crepes made from fermented rice and lentil batter. Ranging from the classic plain dosa to the adventurous masala dosa filled with spicy potato filling and even the vegetable uthappam, there’s a dosa for every palate.
Vada: This deep-fried, savoury doughnut-shaped snack made from lentils is sure to win your heart. Pair it with coconut chutney or sambar for a flavour explosion.
Sabudana Khichadi: A popular dish with a unique texture eaten during fasts, sabudana khichadi features tapioca pearls cooked with peanuts, potatoes, and spices.
Vegan Meals in India
Lunch and dinner in India usually feature a grain-based dish, a lentil preparation, and some vegetables.
Roti/Paratha/Kulcha/Poori: These Indian flatbread variations are typically vegan and can be enjoyed with a variety of vegetable curries or pickles. Parathas are also served for breakfast.
Lentil Gravies: Indian cuisine thrives on lentil-based gravies that are rich in flavour and nutrition. From Sambar in the South to Chole and Rajma in the North, these dishes offer a diverse range of tastes with a good punch of protein.
Vegetable Side Dishes: Dry vegetable dishes and gravies provide an abundance of choices for vegans. Whether it’s the North Indian Dum Aloo or Bhindi or the South Indian Kootu, these dishes are brimming with regional flavours.
Rice and Biryani: White rice is a common feature in daily meals; on special occasions, rice is mixed with vegetables and spices and turned into biryani or pulao.
Indian Vegan Sweets and Desserts
Desserts form an important part of Indian meals, but sadly, very few of the traditional desserts are vegan. Some of the ones that are accidentally vegan include Kaju Katli—made with cashews and sugar, Petha—made with ash gourd and sugar, and Soanpapdi—made with gram flour and sugar.
Vegan Snacks and Street Food in India
India loves snacks, and these savouries accompany the 4pm tea habit. While the tea may not be vegan, the savouries very often are. Snacking options that are vegan-friendly may not always be the healthiest choice since they include a lot of fried foods like banana chips, sev namkeen, bhakarvadi, murukku, or soya chips.
Street foods are a crowd favourite. From the tangy and spicy Bhel Puri to the iconic Pani Puri, these street foods are a must-try for any vegan food enthusiast. Besides that, each state in India even has snack foods that are particular to the region. Patra, Dhokla, and Vada Pav from the West, or Samosa, Bhujiya from the North, Momos from the East, or Bajji from the South, these are almost always vegan.
Glossary of Indian Names of Dairy Products
As a vegan, you’ll want to look out for any products that contain dairy. Here are a few of the more common products and dishes to look out for.
Ghee: Clarified butter
Lassi: Sweetened yoghurt-based drink
Shrikhand: Sweetened yoghurt-based dip
Paneer: Cottage cheese
Tips for Vegan Travellers in India
If you’re visiting India as a vegan, then you’re sure to have the best culinary experience. Here are some tips to make your culinary journey smooth and enjoyable:
- Embrace Local Cuisine: Each region in India has its own specialties. Embrace the local flavours and savour the regional dishes to make the most of your travel experience.
- Eating at Restaurants: Vegan restaurants are cropping up in larger cities and tourist destinations, but vegetarian restaurants have many accidentally vegan options too. If you communicate your dietary needs, many restaurants will happily oblige.
- Enjoy Local Fruits: India boasts a vast array of fresh fruits, making them a convenient and healthy snack option for vegans on the go.
Whether it’s a crispy masala dosa with chutney and sambhar or a simple plate of dal and rice, Indian cuisine has a lot to offer for vegans. It’s safe to say that India is a vegan’s culinary paradise.
Happy vegan munching!