Indian food poses unique challenges: you can call it vegetarian heaven and vegan hell. There’s likely no regional cuisine that’s simultaneously so vegetarian friendly yet so likely to contain undetectable amounts of dairy products. Sometimes milk’s presence is obvious, such as in a yogurt garnish, but mostly the stuff gets hidden away in rice dishes, curries, flatbreads, you name it. They’ll even brush butter on an otherwise vegan item, which seems a gratuitously galling move.
If there’s one element of Indian cooking that’s especially irksome to vegans, it’s the breads. Nan and chapati are India’s counterparts to a Mexican wheat tortilla, made thicker and with a more interesting texture since they’re often cooked in a tandoor oven. Unfortunately, most of these Indian breads contain milk products in the dough. So instead of ordering nan or chapati, consider getting papadams, and ask that they not be brushed with butter prior to serving. Papadums (sometimes called “poppers”) are super thin wafers of lentil flour and spices that, once cooked, get covered with blisters and have a satisfying crunch. Papadums are often fried in oil or heated with tongs over a flame. They’re also surprisingly great microwaved—just cook on high and stop cooking the moment the blisters finish forming.
Soups are another minefield in non-vegan friendly restaurants. The most popular Indian soup is called dal, which is made primarily from lentils and spices. Unfortunately, this spice combination (called tadka) is often sauteed in ghee (clarified butter) before being added to the soup. Since dals are generally cooked in big batches, it won’t be possible to order yours vegan if the soup uses ghee to prepare the tadka. Some restaurants may use vegetable oil for this step, either to please vegans or to save money on ingredients.
In addtion to ghee, the other common word to be on the lookout for on Indian menus is paneer (cheese). You may find it virtually impossible to reliably find out the vegan status of a dish in some vegan restaurants, as the waiter won’t know and then you’ll get hung up on some language issue regarding butter or oil until somebody (the cook, the waiter, or you) gives up.
If you’re facing a situation like this and can’t go elsewhere, you’re probably best off ordering the chana masala which is essentially always vegan. Chana masala goes wonderfully with basmati rice, which is usually made with vegetable oil rather than butter. Masala dosas, a classic South Indian sour lentil pancake dish, are likewise typically vegan.
Of course, there are many vegan restaurants that offer impressive Indian-style dishes. And there are likewise a number of brands of microwavable Indian curries that come in vegan varieties. We especially recommend Tasty Bite’s Channa Masala and Kitchen of India’s Rajma Masala.