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.
In a restaurant, there are two words worth asking about: ghee (clarified butter); and 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.