Want to Know How to Eat Vegan in India? Read This First.
India is paradise for vegetarians, because vegetarian food is widely available and even tends to be the default option. And people get it. There must be more pure veg restaurants in India than any other country in the world. Most Indian veg food is fragrant, flavorful and cheap on the street and in typical restaurants. If you are looking for vegan food in India however, you may lose to the sacred dairy cow more than you like.
I started learning the magic of Indian vegetarian cuisine when I studied abroad at Lady Irwin College in New Delhi. We had a cooking lab where we learned about specific pulses, grains and spices that treated common ailments and conditions. Ayurvedic principles were used for much of the food pairing and preparation. It was beautiful. That was 2001.
It was also pretty easy for me to get food poisoning at that time, so I had to learn what food tends to be safe for Westerners to eat in India.
I was told 3 things can make you really sick in India:
- Regurgitated fecal matter from flies on food that isn’t hot
- Human fecal matter hand funk on food that isn’t hot
- Tap water. It’s on glasses, plates, cilantro, etc. Some people can take a little (brushing their teeth, eating the fresh tomato on a cheap thali, etc), and some explode.
In 2007 I returned to India with my future husband. We rode the trains east to Calcutta and then down south to Kerala and back up to Rajasthan. We savored Bengali sweets, and the dosas, idli and coconut curries of South Indian cuisine.
In 2011 we sipped cinnamon tea in Kashmir and ate Tibetan momos and noodles in Dharmasala. Delicious. We were getting sick less and enjoying our time in India more.
Part of it was in our hands. Literally. Food tastes different when we eat with our hands, and most people in India eat traditional food with their right hand instead of using utensils. You probably will too.
I found 4 ways to reduce the risk of getting sick in India:
- Wash your hands with soap before you touch your food. There are sinks and hand washing stations near almost every restaurant and street food vendor. Thank you Islam! It is possible that many foreigners blame the food in India when it may actually their own unwashed hands and food choices that made them sick.
- Look for a place that works hard to get foreign repeat customers and/or is busy with Indian customers. Beware of quiet restaurants during peak dining times in busy areas. They may be unfairly priced or make people sick in addition to serving sub-par food.
- Eat street food first thing in the morning when it is fresh and hot and flies are still sleeping.
- Think about how food is prepared and make modifications as soon as you receive your food. For example, eating a raw red onion sprinkled on top of poha may be safer than eating raw tomato chunks because onions don’t get washed but tomatoes do. If you get cilantro sprinkled on top of a street uttapam, pull most of it off and turn the hot uttapam over so it heats up the cilantro that is already stuck. If there’s a little bowl of salad on my thali in a typical Indian restaurant, I give it right back to the waiter when they set the thali down so it is not wasted.
In 2017 we returned to India for magical month in Rajasthan, but this time we saw an increase in oily mono-colored (brown) food. It seemed to correspond to the growing rates of obesity, and frankly it made us feel gross. What happened to Ayurvedic cooking principles and slender vibrant ladies like the ones depicted on the temple walls?
I have pinpointed 3 things that make it hard to find healthy food in India:
- So much dairy. Cows eat garbage and turn it into milk and it’s a goddamn miracle and people put it in everything. Everything.
- Oil everywhere. The good news is that when food is piping hot, the flies, hand funk and tap water are magically transformed into something that is less likely to make you sick. The bad news is that excess oil is addictive and clogs us up.
- You don’t know when the water used to wash salads or make fresh juice is clean unless you confirm it with other Westerners who have eaten at that particular place repeatedly.
Bonus: In India many Brahmins are lacto-vegetarian. For many people eggs are forbidden, and therefore it is usually obvious if eggs are in sweets, bread, etc.
We all want to stay healthy while traveling in India. If you also want to be whole food plant-based or be vegan in India, you have some decisions to make:
- Will you regret not drinking milky sweet street chai with local people?
- Will you order honey lemon ginger tea or ask for lemon ginger tea with no honey?
- Can you eat some oil and feel good about?
- Are you ok with eating curries and other dishes that may be cooked with butter? Communication with chefs can be challenging.
- Would you rather be hungry and fast while in traveling between more accommodating chefs or can you eat oily veg food that may contain dairy?
- Do you only want to eat at pure veg restaurants or are you ok eating in restaurants that also sell non-veg food?
- Do you want to stay somewhere and hire a private chef that will fulfill your dairy-free requests? It is possible.
- If you are staying with a family, how will you politely request chai without milk? (Hint: You can bring powdered soy milk, mix it with drinking water and see if the person making chai at the house is willing to use it instead of animal milk when making chai for you.)
- Will you wash your hands consistently before eating and carry paper soap to lower your chances of getting sick and reaching for yogurt to heal your gut?
Here are some of my favorite plant-based whole foods in India:
- poha (flattened rice salad)
- bean sprout salad (we ate this at a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat with many foreigners, so it had to be washed with filtered water so we would all to be healthy enough to meditate)
- fresh peas you wash, dry and then shell yourself
- raw carrots you wash and dry yourself
- guava you wash and dry yourself
- channa (chick pease) and other nut and dry bean snack mixes
- chapatti (whole grain, oil free, and made to order)
- dal (not dal fry or dal makani)
Oily fast food that is delicious, vegetarian and safe when it’s hot…but not healthy
- veg Uttapam (Indian pizza usually without cheese)
- vada (savory donut)
- masala dosa (giant crepe with spiced filling)
- pakori (deep fried bread pieces in dairy-based curry)
- aloo tikki (potato dumpling in curry sauce)
- aloo paratha (potato and flour pancake)
- samosa (deep fried wheat and potato pocket)
- chole batura (chick peas with deep fried puffed bread)
- jelabi (sugar syrup and flour deep fried)
Here are my favorite vegan Indian drinks:
- mint tea
- lemon tea
- lemon ginger tea
- fresh lemon soda at a restaurant (just lemon juice squeezed in a glass with soda water poured on it). They sell it on the street, but I’m wary.
*Boiling hot water makes cups clean and neutralizes the bad effects of tap water
And here’s some Indian street food I’m afraid to eat:
- anything flies are landing on because it’s not hot anymore
- anything raw
- fresh sugar cane juice
- fresh lemon soda
Learn a few words you will see written with Roman characters on menus, and you will have an easier time ordering food. Here is an abridged Indian vegetarian menu decoder:
kana – food (you’ll see beggars saying this while bringing their hand to their mouth)
aloo – potato
baingan – eggplant
brinjal – lady fingers
gobi – cauliflower
masala – spices
matar – peas
palak – spinach and mustard greens
tamaater – tomato
Side dishes / sauces:
achar – mixed vegetable pickle that can be spicy and oily
chutney – often made of coconut or mango
dahee – aka curd; unsweetened (often deliciously sour) yogurt
papadum – big deep fried spiced cracker
(th)dude – milk
chai – black tea with milk and spices
paneer – cheese that looks like tofu
chana – chick peas
dal – lentils
rajma – red beans
chapatti – whole grain, usually non-greasy flat bread
nan – baked flat bread
paratha – oily flat bread with vegetables mashed in
puri – greasy flat bread
Applying for an Indian Visa? It’s a pain in the butt. This video can help. Have fun!