Vivacious colours, exotic animals and ancient temples were all things which sprung to mind when I imagined my 6 week trip to India. But there was one thing in particular that had me desperate to cross oceans and land to experience: the food!
Indian cuisine has long been a firm favourite on my dinner plate, and I’m guilty of adding a “curried twist” to almost everything I cook. The prospect of eating authentic Indian food, and trying out regional varieties, was like a dream come true.
But after 18 months of living a vegan lifestyle, I also knew it was going to be hard.Though a huge portion of the population in India are vegetarian, ghee, cream and Paneer are staple ingredients in it’s meat free dishes. In fact, some of the most famous, and delicious -such as kulfi and masala chai – are specifically popular because they are made with dairy.
So in preparation for my vegan travels through India (and in fact the rest of Asia) I readily acknowledged the fact that I may need to relax my ethics a little, to ensure I kept a varied diet and got to experience such a huge part of the culture.
It was certainly hard at first, and my first few sips of milk chai or veg curry cooked in ghee were an overload to the senses. It simply tasted gross!! Though I ate vegan as much as I could, at times I had to suck it up and eat what was available. The fact is, when you’re travelling from place to place every other day, eating at odd times and have limited options, you quickly learn the art of survival over ideals.
But knowing how sacred the cows are here, and in fact how most dairy and eggs are produced on a small, free range scale (you often see the restaurants cows and chickens roaming around in the backyard) I felt a little more comfortable about the compromise.
The best vegan meals I ate in India
Luckily, there were plenty of vegan options available across India, and most veggie dishes can be tweaked to remove eggs and dairy. Some of my vegan friendly Indian favourite dishes have included:
- Stuffed tomato curry in Rajasthan (check what it’s filled with first as some use paneer)
- Tibetan vegetable stew in McLeod Ganj
- Onion paratha and dhal in Agra (so simple but so delicious!)
- Peanut masala and chapati can be snacked on across India
- Okra, aubergine or chickpeas curries in Varanasi were all to die for
- Bhel poori is a delicious snack in Mumbai
- Exotic fresh fruit salad and avocado on toast was a daily treat in Goa
- Beetroot Thoran in Kerala served in banana leaf
- Spicy chickpeas stuffed bun (wrapped in newspaper) in Dharamshala
- Spicy tofu burger in Delhi with homemade vegan better it and mint dip
The markets are laden with fresh fruit and vegetables, and pulses are used widely across India as affordable meat alternatives. In the South, coconut milk is used a lot in curries and if you ask nicely sometimes you can nab a small jug for your coffee!
5 tips for a vegan traveling in India
So, with this in mind, here’s my 5 tips for eating vegan in India:
1. Keep your eyes peeled for vegan specific restaurants in the big cities; Millets of Mewar in Udaipir has been my fav so far.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask about ingredients and make requests to tweak dishes. Sometimes it’s easier to explain that you simply avoid animal products because of your religion. Jainism is known throughout India and their eating habits (in essence vegan) is much more widely understood then veganism if you’re talking to someone with limited English.
3. Street food is a must wherever you are in India and, though a lot is deep fried, you’ll find lots of vegan options available.
4. When you find good vegan food, stock up. If, like me, you have long distances to travel and weird eating times to navigate, it’s always good to have some ready made snacks available to keep you going.
5. Be flexible and don’t beat yourself up if you have to compromise. Backpacking is very rarely predictable so you have to go with the flow, and more importantly look after your health. An egg from the chicken roaming free in the back yard is better than starving yourself in the 40 degree heat or, even worse, becoming B12 deficient. Use your own judgement and make the call when a situation arises.
Most importantly, the key to surviving India as a vegan is to just have the best time ever exploring some of the world’s most exciting dishes, it truly is foodie heaven!