Last time we talked about Italian cuisine, which might seem daunting for vegans but is in fact not. Now, let’s talk Indian food, which might sound easy for vegans, but in my experience can be more complicated than it seems. But not impossible, of course! Let’s get to it.
Just a little disclaimer. I have only eaten Indian food outside of India (both in restaurants and in Desi people’s homes) and that I have unfortunately not visited the country itself (yet). Therefore, the Indian food I have eaten might be a ‘Western European’ version of actual Indian food. However, since most of the people that read my blog will most likely also only enjoy Indian food in restaurants in Western Europe and the US (since that is where most of my visitors come from), I think this is not a problem.
Also, like with any cultural expression, books can be written about this topic and this is just one article. So I will try to cover the things that I think are interesting and relevant, but I might miss something. Feel free to let me know in the comments if that is the case!
India is a huge country, and there are large differences in people, cultures, climate and thus food across it. Some products are used in many regions, such as wheat, rice, pulses/lentils (in the form of dal). In India a variety of spices are grown, such as mustard, black pepper, cardamom and turmeric and they have been used in cooking for centuries. Interestingly, potatoes, which are quite common in some regions of India, are in fact originating from South America and brought in by the Portuguese. Also chillies were introduced this way. In the South and East of India, it is more common to eat with the hands rather than cutlery, which is not the case in Northern and Western regions.
Most of the food served in Indian restaurants in Western Europe is actually from Northern India. The food is characterized by its heavy use of dairy; cream, yoghurt, paneer. Also, the tandoor oven is mostly associated with the Northern regions. From the Western regions, there are the chutneys, and stronger use of coconut milk and fish. South Indian curries tend to be drier and less creamy compared to Northern versions. Dosas, a type of filled fermented pancakes, and papadums (crunchy chickpea flour breads) also are a South Indian speciality. Eastern India is mostly known for its desserts and many restaurants actually serve East Indian desserts.
Religion also plays a role in Indian cuisine. The major religion in India is Hinduism, followed by Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, and several others. There is the idea that Hindu’s won’t eat beef, which is not necessarily true, though most prefer to eat a vegetarian diet. Similarly, not all Buddhists are vegetarian. In Jainism, vegetarianism is very common and veganism is actually encouraged. In total about a third of the Indian population is (lacto-) vegetarian, which explains the plethora of vegetarian dishes available in Indian restaurants.
So yes, for vegetarians, Indian food is a great option. Unfortunately for vegans, dairy products are hiding in a lot of dishes which might seem vegan. For example: naan is almost never vegan, it has yoghurt. The ingredient which makes most vegan-looking dishes non-vegan is ghee. Ghee is a type of butter which is used a lot in Indian cooking instead of oil. (I did read that in Europe, since ghee is less easy to come by, vegetable oil is more common)
Likely vegan dishes in (Western) Indian restaurants
Here is a (non-complete) list of dishes which are likely to be vegan. Still, every chef will have their own recipe, so be sure to ask. In general, it helps to be specific, especially about the ghee because it is so ubiquitous. (But as mentioned: ghee is less common outside of India, it is possible though that a restaurant will use vegetable oil)
Another general tip: avoid all creamy dishes (such as kormas), and dishes with ‘paneer’ (cheese). As mentioned above, the North Indian cuisine is more common in restaurants in Western Europe, so most dishes I mention here are from that region. However, there are also restaurants which specifically have South Indian cuisines.
Bread in Indian cuisine is actually used as a utensil. Pieces of flat bread are torn off (not cut) and are used (sometimes together with cutlery) to scoop up the food. The most common type of flat bread in West-European Indian restaurants, naan, are usually made with yoghurt.
Vegan alternatives for naan:
Papadum: crunchy thin flatbread made of chick pea flour (Interestingly, I have been to Indian restaurants in several different countries and they all serve papadums with sauces as an appetizer)
Chapati or roti: simple flatbread, made of flour, water and salt (sometimes brushed with butter)
These starters have been vegan at every Indian restaurant I have seen them at:
Vegetable samosas – dough with potato filling
Pakora or (onion) bhajji – vegetables in chick pea flour, fried
These dishes have mostly been vegan in places where I saw them. Some of these are very occasionally made with cream, though.
Aloo gobi – potato and cauliflower curry
Vegetable or mushroom biryani – a rice dish, note that it is sometimes made with ghee and often served with raita (yoghurt sauce) to the side
Baigan bharta – mashed eggplant
Dal – lentils with spices, vegan in its basic preparation but are sometimes prepared with butter and cream though
Aloo jeera/bombay – potatoes with spices
Chana masala – chick pea curry
Most Indian desserts are made with diary in the form of condensed milk, butter, so in general they are a no-go for vegans. Some Indian restaurants do serve “Western” desserts like sorbets. I have on occasion had a vegan dessert! So asking won’t hurt, especially if you reserve in advance.
This article became a bit longer than initially intended…it is not easy to condense the amount of information of such a diverse subject! Also I like to talk about food. Indian food can be tricky for vegans but it is worth the hassle in my opinion 🙂