Vegan Indian Food: A Guide to Cooking & Dining Out

Finding reliably vegan Indian food is tricky, which is a surprising situation for the world’s most vegetarian-friendly cuisine. But no worries—in this guide we’ll dive deep into Indian cooking to uncover some of the most delicious vegan foods you’ll ever taste.

Indian Food: One Country, Many Cuisines

When it comes to diversity, India is unmatched. No other nation features such a dizzying assortment of languages, religions, and cultures. What’s more, profound climate variations cause different foods to dominate each region. Every part of India has consequently evolved its own unique cuisine, based on its dominant cultures and whichever crops thrive locally.

My favorite vlogger, Mr. Bald and Bankrupt himself, put it wonderfully: “[India’s] cuisine changes from state to state, even sometimes from city to city. It’s such a varied country. They say In India, every 100 kilometers the food changes and the language changes.”

But no matter where you travel in India, vegetarianism is often the norm. For thousands of years, the pervasiveness of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism caused most Indians to reject meat, fish, and eggs. No other part of the world has seen so many people eating so much vegetarian food for such a long time. So when it comes to offering up an endless assortment of vegetarian dishes, no cuisine compares to India’s.

Given the staggering variety of popular vegetarian Indian dishes, we have a lot to cover here. So feel free to use the following links to skip ahead to the sections that particularly interest you. Following this brief introduction to India’s cuisine, I’ll introduce you to the country’s most prominent cooking ingredients, meals, and snacks. After that, I’ll offer advice on how to reliably order vegan meals served at Indian restaurants. Then I’ll try to talk you into visiting the Indian grocery nearest you by telling you about some must-purchase items. Finally, I’ll end with coverage of how to cook vegan Indian meals at home.

How Dairy Products Took Over Indian Cooking

No cuisine emphasizes dairy products more than Indian cooking. Dairy’s dominance arose partly from religious beliefs, and partly from nutritional concerns. Let’s now look at each of these factors.

Dairy Products and Hinduism

Widespread belief in karma and reincarnation helped establish vegetarianism as the default diet throughout much of India. Hindu scripture played a crucial role here by elevating the moral status of cows. Under Hinduism, cows occupy an exalted level of consciousness—a level even more rarified than that attained by ordinary people. To a devout Hindu, slaughtering cows therefore amounts to a sin with grave karmic repercussions.

Yet, simultaneously, Hinduism regards dairy products as a uniquely valuable food. Why? Primarily because, if cows indeed inhabit sublime realms of consciousness, it’s sensible to presume their milk confers unique benefits. Lord Krishna is famously associated with dairy products. One of the Vedas’ most famous passages recounts him, as a mischievous boy, stealing butter from the kitchen.

Many Indians today take the healthfulness of dairy as a matter of faith, and consider milk an indispensable food. They further assume that India’s cows enjoy a good quality of life (even though they generally don’t.)

Lest you think I’m exaggerating the importance that Hinduism assigns to dairy products, here’s what the Hare Krishnas have to say about the matter:

The teachings of Krishna consciousness emphasize the many transcendental benefits of milk. The Vedas say the cow is one of the mothers of mankind; cow’s milk and its many preparations are a key part of the recommended diet for human beings. Milk is considered essential for the proper development of the human brain, enhancing our ability to understand and apply spiritual knowledge.

These are some pretty strong claims that deserve some pushback and challenge. But no amount of evidence and debate is likely to knock dairy products off its pedestal when it comes to how many Indians think about nutrition.

Dairy Products and India’s History of Malnutrition & Famine

Dairy products became further entrenched in Indian cooking by virtue of their being a protein-rich alternative to meat. In a region long plagued by hunger, there’s no disputing that dairy products can provide valuable nutrients to people at risk of malnutrition.

Additionally, many Indians believe that dairy involves transmuting the blood of the cow into a purer, healthier substance that does not require killing.

These factors caused dairy-based ingredients to become widespread in Indian cooking. The stuff appears everywhere and in every form. When eating at Indian restaurants, vegans must watch out for dishes containing milk, cheese, and yogurt sauces. Clarified butter (ghee) may appear in any sort of fried dish. Luckily, vegetable oil is much cheaper than ghee. Many Indian restaurants refuse to cook with ghee because it is remarkably expensive compared to vegetable oil.

Although no other world cuisine leans so heavily on dairy products, it’s certainly possible to find terrific vegan Indian food. Later in this guide, we’ll look at how to avoid dairy products when dining at vegan restaurants. And of course, when you’re cooking at home, any vegetarian Indian dish can readily be prepared dairy-free.

Essential Indian Cooking Ingredients

Let’s now look at some of the most common ingredients in Indian cooking. In just a few pages, we’ll cover the main ingredients in most Indian meals.

Rice and Beans

Just as they do in Latin America, rice and beans provide the bulk of the calories in many Indian meals. But the varieties of rice and beans used in Indian cooking are different than those favored in Latin America.

Popular Rice Varieties

India is one of the world’s largest producers and consumers of rice, and many Indians eat it daily. The two most common varieties in India are white long grain rice, and a reddish whole grain rice. If you want to know why diabetes rates are off the charts in India, the habit of many Indians to eat white rice with practically every meal is surely a primary factor.

India is also famous for a fragrant long-grain rice variety called basmati, which is grown in the foothills in the northern part of the country. Basmati is nearly always milled into white rice. This is bad for nutrition, but convenient for home cooking, since the rice cooks almost immediately. You can cook white basmati rice in a pot in barely about twelve minutes, compared to about 40 minutes for brown rice.

Basmati is among the most expensive rice varieties, and many Indians therefore eat it only on special occasions. India exports about half of India’s basmati rice crop. Basmati happens to be the only variety of rice that I prefer white. I normally favor whole grain bread and brown rice, but I think brown basmati rice lacks the delicate texture of white basmati. Sure, white basmati is pure carbs, and contains no fiber or other nutrients, but it’s a delicious occasional treat.

When preparing basmati rice at home, drop a cardamom pod or some cardamom seeds into the water prior to cooking. The way that cardamom’s gentle flavor blends with basmati is one of the world’s great flavor combinations, right up there with chocolate and peanuts.

Beans

Beans are a crucial part of Indian cooking. They contain loads of protein and play an indispensable role in the country’s nutrition.

One of my Indian friends insists that, “Indian restaurants give a bad name to Indian cuisine.” By this, she means that many restaurants cook with only a tiny variety of foods. This is especially the case with beans, and most Indian restaurants use just four varieties:

  • Lentils
  • Split peas
  • Garbanzos
  • Kidney beans

Of these beans, lentils and are probably the most important, since they’re used to make both soups and dosas (we’ll cover both these foods later on). Lentils come in several varieties, including black, brown, and red. Yellow split peas are also widely used for soup. Since lentils and split peas are so tiny, they cook much more quickly than larger varieties of beans.

Garbanzos and kidney beans appear in a variety of curried stews. Of the beans that are widely eaten worldwide, garbanzos and kidney beans are unusual since they both contain significant amounts of fat. This gives them a richer texture and flavor than other beans, most of which are practically fat-free.

Beyond Garbanzos & Kidney Beans

While Indian restaurants cook only a few varieties of beans, there are no such limitations for people cooking at home. The cuisine features all sorts of obscure bean varieties. A serious Indian cook will have a dozen varieties of dried beans in their pantry. And any good Indian grocery will feature nearly an entire aisle devoted to different varieties of lentils.

Despite its immense popularity throughout most of Asia, tofu never became established in traditional Indian cooking. That’s a shame since this nutritious soybean product could have displaced a great deal of dairy foods, thereby improving the nutrient status of countless millions of people. While it’s certainly not a traditional ingredient of Indian cooking, sliced tofu works remarkably well in most spicy curry stews. So be open to adding tofu to your curries even if the recipe doesn’t call for it.

While tofu is rarely used in India, textured vegetable protein is probably India’s most popular meat replacements. The stuff is cheap, filling, full of protein, and goes wonderfully in any sort of curried dish. One of the most popular such brands is Butler Soy Curls.

Popular Vegetables in Indian Cooking

Just as Indian restaurants use only a few types of beans, most are likewise surprisingly limited when it comes to vegetables. Here are by far the eight most common vegetables in Indian cooking.

  1. Potatoes
  2. Carrots
  3. Spinach
  4. Cauliflower
  5. Onions
  6. Peas
  7. Okra
  8. Eggplant

If there’s a vegetable in your Indian restaurant meal, chances are it’s one of these. Luckily, both spinach and cauliflower are remarkably nutritious, and peas are loaded with protein.

In contrast to Indian restaurants, home chefs make extensive use of vegetables. A nutritious dish based on leafy greens commonly makes up one course of any home-cooked Indian meal. No cuisine makes heavier use of fresh beans than does Indian food, and hard squash and gourds also appear in a wide assortment of meals. Tomatoes are also remarkably common in Indian cooking, which is hardly surprising since tomato plants thrive in hot weather.

Many Indian cooks sprout mung beans and garbanzo beans in their kitchen. The sprouts are either cooked in curries or added fresh to salads.

Indian Spices

Spices are the foundation of Indian cooking. No other cuisine employs such a wide assortment of fragrant and colorful spices.

In order to wrap their heads around the unfamiliar flavors of this novel cuisine, British colonialists came up with the idea of assembling a spice mix they called “curry powder” as an easy way to capture the most common spices of India. You can think of curry powder as the SparkNotes of Indian cooking—they give you the gist of the experience without having to invest any significant time. But eating a meal made with curry powder is like drinking flat soda—you’re in the right neighborhood but on the wrong side of the tracks.

You can buy pre-ground curry powder in any supermarket. If you are new to Indian cooking, curry powder offers a convenient way to jump in and produce meals with deliver classic Indian flavors. You’ll save a lot of time over buying a bunch of spices separately and grinding them all up together. That said, serious chefs would cringe at the idea of purchasing curry powder. Not only does pre-ground curry powder quickly lose flavor, but by using this stuff you’ll forfeit your ability to adjust your dish’s seasonings to your taste. Instead of using curry powder, Indian chefs use a number of classic Indian spices in the proportions they judge suitable for a given meal.

Classic Indian Spices

So, a serious Indian chef either won’t know what “curry powder” is, or would look at the concept as training wheels for a novice cook. Curry powder is best regarded as a combination of India’s most important spices. They are:

  • Cumin
  • Coriander
  • Turmeric
  • Cayenne Chili Pepper
  • Fennel
  • Mustard
  • Pepper

Of these spices, turmeric deserves a special mention. It’s bright yellow, and has a bitter and not enjoyable flavor on its own. But it somehow meshes perfectly with other Indian spices. Most westerners buy it in powdered form, but if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to find fresh turmeric roots at your grocery. They look like miniature orange ginger roots. Just like ginger, you can skin and mince fresh turmeric and then mix it in with your other seasonings.

Other common curry spice ingredients are cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, chili powder, and minced or powdered ginger. Garlic and onions are also ubiquitous in Indian food, and go perfectly with the classic Indian spices we just reviewed.

Garam Masala

Another popular pre-mixed Indian spice is called garam masala. Although garam means hot in Hindi, this does not denote the hot spiciness of chili peppers, but rather a bodily warming quality (under ayurvedic health theories, which we’ll briefly cover later on). The only spicy-hot component of garam masala is a tiny amount of black pepper. Most other garam masala spice ingredients are sweet rather than hot, and include, cinnamon, cardamom, bay leaf, star anise, and nutmeg. As with curry powder, every chef will choose a slightly different assortment of spices when preparing garam masala from scratch.

For both curry powder and garam masala, the spices are toasted together in a dry skillet, and then ground up into powder. Ideally a new spice mix is ground freshly before each meal, which keeps the seasonings from losing flavor.

North and South Indian Food

As we dig deeper into Indian cooking, it’s useful to distinguish between the foods cooked in North India and South India. These regions feature completely different dishes, but they do share similar flavors since all rely on curry spices.

While South Indians rarely cook with paneer (cheese), neither North nor South Indian cooking is reliably dairy-free. The diversity of milk-based offerings complicates finding reliably vegan food at Indian restaurants. No cuisine is more likely to contain undetectable amounts of milk, cream, ghee. Sometimes the presence of dairy is obvious, such as in a yogurt garnish, but mostly the stuff blends undetectably into rice dishes, curries, flatbreads, you name it. When dining out, you must always stay vigilant to avoid squirts of ghee here and dollops of yogurt there.

Finally, I want to warn you about one incredibly confusing restaurant practice. Thousands and thousands of Indian restaurants, especially those located in India, feature the words “Pure Veg” on their storefront signs. While “Pure Veg” certainly sounds vegan-friendly, it simply means they don’t serve meat. Many of these restaurants put dairy in practically everything.

Indian Snacks & Appetizers (Chaat)

We could endlessly debate over which of the world’s cuisines offers the most magnificent meals. The French, the Italians, the Vietnamese, and many other cultures can all lay strong claims to this honor. But there’s no doubt—none whatsoever—about who has the best snacks. It’s Indian cuisine, hands down. Honestly, I’d rather eat a few Indian snack items than an Indian dinner, and I love Indian dinners!

The Hindi word for snack is chaat, and Indian “chaat houses” are everywhere—not just in India but in virtually every city with a good-sized Indian community. Worldwide, there are thousands of chaat houses that serve nothing but snacks.

There’s no clear dividing line between chaat and Indian appetizers, but one clear giveaway is that food carts serve nothing but chaat. It’s India’s quintessential street food. Nearly all varieties of chaat are accompanied by yogurt, tamarind sauce, chopped cilantro, some sort of masala seasoning, or chutney. Since the yogurt is a standard garnish, you can always request no yogurt when ordering. If you’re serving chaat at home, unsweetened vegan yogurt makes an excellent replacement for dairy yogurt.

Puris and Bhature

Centuries before the State Fair of Texas came into existence, Indians were eating deep fried bread. Puris are the most common variety—made from deep-fried whole wheat dough and served with chutney.

A similar but exceedingly eye-catching dish is chole bhature, which looks like ordinary puri but is several times larger. My favorite chaat house aptly describes bhature as, “the big puffy thing.” It’s a deep-fried flat bread that inflates like a balloon during frying. You tear off pieces and dip them into whatever spicy chutney accompanies your order.

Other than size, the main difference between puri and bhature is that the latter usually contains white rather than whole grain flour. Both puri and bhature dough commonly contain curds or yogurt, so vegans must always inquire before ordering.

Samosas & Pakora

Two other popular deep fried chaat items are samosas and pakoras. Samosas are triangular vegetable-stuffed pastries. They’re either served with chutney, or dunked into a spicy chickpea curry. Pakoras are bite-sized pieces of vegetables dipped into a spicy chickpea flour batter and deep fried. While samosas sometimes contain meat, a vegetarian samosa is reliably vegan. And pakoras are always vegan.

Aloo Tiki

Although not as well-known as samosas or pakora, aloo tiki is by far my favorite chaat item. They’re fried potato dumplings, wonderfully spiced and topped with a savory sauce. They’re commonly garnished with yogurt, which vegans should ask to omit.

Vadas

You’ll know vadas when you see them, since they’re the size and shape of donuts. Vadas use a savory bean-based batter, which makes them insanely filling. They are served straight from the deep-fryer, with a squirt of tangy chutney. Despite their undeniable status as an indulgent deep-fried snack, the bean-based batter makes vadas a rich source of protein and other nutrients.

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There are dozens of other different chaat items, so this brief coverage can’t begin to do justice to all the possibilities. But I do hope what I’ve written here inspires you to seek out your nearest chaat house.

Admittedly, on your first visit you may feel overwhelmed by all the unfamiliar offerings. I suggest you hang out at the counter for a while before ordering, so you can see what other customers are getting. When you spy something coming out of the kitchen that looks especially appealing, inquire about its name and its vegan status.

Classic Indian Meals

Now that we’ve covered Indian snacks, let’s continue on to checking out the most common vegan-friendly Indian meals.

Curries

The most well-known sorts of Indian food are the curried stews of Northern India. These stews are made from beans or vegetables, and are usually served over rice, or combined with crushed idlis.

Aloo gobi—potatoes and cauliflower and seasoned with cilantro and onions—is one of the most popular Indian stews. Equally popular is chana masala—chickpeas in a spicy curried sauce. Your Hindi vocabulary lessons here are:

  • aloo = potato
  • gobi = cauliflower
  • chana = chickpeas
  • masala = spice

Saag Paneer

Perhaps the most nutrient-dense of all popular Indian entrees is Saag Paneer. Since Saag means spinach and paneer means cheese, this dish, when prepared traditionally, is never vegan. On top of the cheese, this dish usually also contains cream.

But when cooking at home you can swap out the cheese for firm tofu or your favorite hard vegan cheese. A bit of cashew cream or other unsweetened vegan milk will substitute nicely for cream. When spiced correctly, it’s such a flavorful dish that you can do away with the dairy products entirely with no discernible loss.

Think of saag paneer as creamed spinach with Indian spices and a fair bit of oil. Since many Indian dishes aren’t exactly abundant in vegetables, saag paneer is a great dish to pick up the slack. It’s fantastic with flat bread or poured over basmati rice.

Dal

Dal is by far India’s most popular soup. Many Indians eat it daily. Dal’s main ingredient is either cooked lentil beans or yellow split peas. These pulses are pureed into a thick and satisfying soup. Dal has loads of flavor since it contains curry spices, fresh ginger, onions, or slivered garlic.

Dal accompanies many Indian meals. It’s either served in a bowl and eaten as a soup, or it’s poured over rice. The lentils or split peas make dal among the most protein-rich dishes in Indian cooking.

South Indian Dosas

Dosas are crepes, often larger in diameter than a dinner plate. The primary ingredient is a lentil batter that’s fermented for a couple days at room temperature. The fermentation gives the dosas a tangy flavor. Regular dosas are made from rice and lentils, whereas the also-popular rava dosas are made from wheat and lentils.

Dosas are folded around a savory filling, most often spiced potatoes and onions. Many South Indian restaurants offer at least ten varieties of dosa, each with different fillings and spices. If you like heavily seasoned food, order a masala dosa.

Idlis

Idlis (pronounced: id-lee) are one of the most popular foods in India. They’re oblong balls or disks made from steamed ground-up white rice and urad dal (white lentils with the black husk removed). Idlis range from about the size a peach pit to as big as your palm.

Idlis have little flavor. They exist as a bland base intended to soak up and counterbalance spicy Indian soups and sauces. Indians often order idlis instead of basmati rice, and mash them into their curried stews—this is quite similar to mashed potatoes and gravy, albeit with different starches and proteins. Alternately, they’ll tear off a portion of idli, and dip it into sambar, a delicious and extremely spicy reddish spicy soup. Indian restaurant menus often list idli sambar as a single menu item.

Side Dishes (Flatbreads and Rice)

When dining at Indian restaurants, your waiter will protest if you attempt to order a curried dish or a soup on its own. These dishes are invariably accompanied by either flatbread or rice.

Flatbreads

Flatbreads accompany a great many meals in India. As with Ethiopian food, you’ll often use flatbread rather than utensils to eat your meal. Typically, you tear off a small piece, and use it to grab a fork-sized portion of whatever curried stew you’re eating. As an aside, this is why most Indians are in the habit of washing their hands right before eating—many restaurants in India even have a hand-washing sink in the main dining area.

The two most common varieties of flatbread are roti and chapati, the former rolled flat with a rolling pin and the latter patted flat by hand just like a homemade Mexican corn tortilla. Both these breads feature whole-grain flour, so they’re quite nutritious. There’s so much variation in thickness and cooking styles, that it’s hard to know what you’ll get when you order flatbread. Neither roti nor chapati dough commonly contains dairy products, but these breads are often garnished with some butter or ghee after cooking.

Another common flatbread is called naan, which is not only less healthful than roti or chapati, it’s also rarely vegan. It’s usually made of white flour, and the dough often contains milk. Naan is Iranian in origin, and similar to the lavash bread served in the Middle East. Even though it’s not terribly healthy, naan is worth seeking out if you can find it vegan. Authentic naan is cooked in a tandoor (a clay oven), which imparts a unique and sensational texture. Unfortunately, you should assume naan contains milk unless the waiter or ingredient label tells you otherwise.

When eating out, vegans should avoid naan and request either roti or chapati served without butter or ghee.

Rices

Indian restaurants commonly serve small bowls of steamed plain white rice to accompany their meals. Fancy restaurants will use basmati rice.

Two more rice-based dishes, biryani and kitchari, are entrees rather than side dishes.

Biryani

This dish arrived in India via Muslims from the Middle East and elsewhere. Biryani is a bright yellow rice dish similar to Asian fried rice and Spanish paella, but with different seasonings. The Hindu populations emphasized the addition of vegetables, whereas other parts of India added fish and meat. The dominant spices of biryani are cinnamon, star anise, and mace—which together impart a very different flavor than what you’ll get from any other Indian-style dish.

Owing to the fact that its primary ingredient is expensive basmati rice, most Indians reserve it for special occasions. And since it’s ideally suited to preparation in large batches, biryani is one of India’s most popular wedding foods. While it may be tough to find vegan biryani when eating out, this is an easy dish to cook vegan at home, and its unique flavors make it a must-try Indian meal.

Kitchari

Kitchari is a widely-consumed but not widely-beloved Indian meal. Yet again, a quick Hindi lesson comes in handy. The word kitchari simply means “mixture,” and when applied to this dish it refers to a mixture of rice and split yellow peas. If that doesn’t sound all that appetizing, you’re correct.

If you visit an ashram in India, it’s likely that they will serve you kitchari as one of your daily meals. That’s because most ashram food strives to be blandly wholesome. You go to an ashram primarily to loosen your attachments to sensory gratification, and nothing washes away your lust for enticing flavors like a string of boring meals. Kitchari is India’s least tantalizing food, but it’s light on the stomach and digests easily.

Kitchari is one of the key foods within the ayurvedic tradition. Ayurveda is an ancient Indian approach to health, and it is largely based on consuming foods and spices chosen to correct bodily imbalances. Kitchari accommodates a wide assortment of spices, with each spice associated with different health properties. When prepared in the ayurvedic tradition, kitchari is spiced to remedy a person’s particular imbalances and maladies. When ill, many Indians eat mostly kitchari in hopes that this food will restore their health.

The best thing about kitchari is that, unlike most vegetarian Indian meals, the stuff is nearly always vegan by default.

Indian Desserts

While we’ve just witnessed the abundance of excellent meal and snack possibilities that Indian food offers, I have only bad news when it comes to desserts. One of my vegan Indian friends says dismissively: “There’s nothing to eat.”

Nearly every popular Indian dessert contains dairy products or honey. If you’re lucky, you might be able to find vegan kaju burfi or jalebi, but even these dishes usually contain milk products.

So if you want a vegan Indian-style dessert, you’re probably either going to have to make it yourself or dine at a vegan Indian restaurant. Luckily, you won’t have any trouble finding suitable recipes. Vegan Richa’s Indian Kitchen features veganized versions of eighteen traditional Indian desserts. Sahara Rose Ketabi’s Eat Feel Fresh likewise includes an extensive Indian dessert selection.

Ordering Vegan Indian Food from Restaurants

When dining at Indian restaurants, your main job as a vegan—in fact your only job—is to avoid hidden dairy products. When Indian food contains meat, its presence is obvious. And Indian cooking never evolved to include eggs. So as long as you can determine your Indian meal is dairy-free, you’ll know it’s vegan.

This is a stark contrast to cuisines like Mexican food, which feature a wide assortment of animal ingredients, often present in undetectable amounts. Mexican food forces vegans to contend with lard, chicken stock, and sour cream—all of which are often impossible to see or to taste.

That said, it’s often difficult to determine whether a given Indian dish contains milk. You’ll often have a tough time determining whether a given dish contains dairy products because they’re used in small quantities in meals dominated by brightly-colored seasonings and spicy flavors. So without clear ingredient descriptions, you’re in trouble. In many Indian restaurants, the wait-staff is either unfamiliar with their food’s ingredients, or they can’t communicate clearly in your language.

Dairy Products are Everywhere

As we’ve already seen, vegans must take special care when ordering flat bread since it may contain dairy products. To improve your chances of getting a meal, consider ordering papadams rather than flat bread, and ask that they not be brushed with butter prior to serving. Papadums (sometimes nicknamed “poppers”) are super thin wafers of lentil flour and spices that, when cooked, become covered with blisters and have a satisfying crunch. Restaurants usually prepare papadums by either quickly frying them in oil or heating them over a flame.

Soups are another hazardous choice for vegans in most Indian restaurants. Dal—by far the most popular Indian soup—is made primarily from lentils and spices. Unfortunately, this spice combination (called tadka) is commonly sauteed in ghee. Since restaurants invariably prepare dal in big batches, it won’t be possible to order yours vegan if its tadka contains ghee. Some restaurants may use vegetable oil to fry the tadka, either to please vegans or to save money on ingredients.

In addition to ghee, the other common words to watch out for on Indian menus are paneer (cheese) and dahi (yogurt).

Menu Items that are Consistently Vegan

At some Indian restaurants, it’s all but impossible to ascertain the vegan status of a particular dish. Often, the waiter won’t have a clue and there won’t be any way to find out. I’ve lost count of the number of times this has happened to me.

So where does all this leave us? There’s never any guarantee, but here are some popular and reliably vegan Indian restaurant foods:

  • Chana masala
  • Kitchari
  • Dosas
  • Samosas and Pakoras (as appetizers)
  • Basmati rice
  • Idlis

Roti and Chapati (But avoid ghee chapatis, which contain milk, and ask that they be served without butter.) Obviously, your vegan options will be much more extensive at restaurants that strive to accommodate vegans. But it’s comforting to know that even at the most mainstream Indian restaurants, the above choices are sufficient to guarantee you a satisfying and reliably-vegan meal.

Finally, keep in mind that many vegan restaurants have Indian options on the menu. In my experience, Indian food usually turns out pretty good at places that don’t specialize in the cuisine, even if the flavors aren’t perfectly authentic. This is in stark contrast to Middle Eastern food, which is generally wretched at restaurants that also prepare other cuisines.

Buying Vegan Foods at Indian Grocery Stores

Just about every city with a sizable Indian population has at least one Indian grocery. These stores are well worth seeking out, as they’ll have some delicious vegan foods you can’t find elsewhere. Better yet, the prices on some of the most popular vegan items are generally excellent.

If you get a chance to visit an Indian grocery, five items in particular—all imported from India—are worth stocking up on:

  1. Mango pickle (and other glass-jarred pickle condiments). Just a teaspoon or two served as a garnish alongside your favorite curry can elevate your meal to a new level. Many Indian groceries carry nearly a full aisle’s worth of these condiments, so bring home a new variety every time you shop.
  2. Papadams. These are the paper-thin lentil wafers that I mentioned earlier. They’re a quick, spicy, protein-rich snack. Each papadam costs only a few pennies, and they’re great at staving off hunger if you’re not ready for a meal. They also make a terrific accompaniment to Indian take out food, or whatever Indian meal you’re cooking at home. They’re traditionally deep fried, but are also excellent cooked over a flame. Or you can heat them in a microwave for about fifteen seconds apiece until they uniformly blister. Although microwaved papadams won’t develop the delicious char that accompanies flame-cooking, they’re still quite tasty and no snack is quicker to prepare.
  3. Foil-packed entrees. All these products come in a foil pack packaged in a cardboard box. Tasty Bite is the most popular brand, and most of the other brands are surprisingly good. The best of these products are comparable to decent Indian take-out food. Although many of these offerings contain dairy, most brands offer a vegan chickpea curry, usually called “chana masala” or “pindi chana.” If you don’t have an Indian grocery in your community, you can also order these products from Amazon. For a cheap meal that could pass for home-cooked, these products are impossible to beat. I especially recommend Tasty Bite’s Channa Masala.
  4. Lotus seeds. You pop these just like popcorn, with some oil in a covered frying pan. Season with chili powder, turmeric, curry leaves, and salt.
  5. Tamarind sauce. The perfect accompaniment to samosas and other chaat items. Tamarind paste or sauce should contain only a few ingredients—avoid brands with preservatives and colorings.

The above items are only the start of your options. Indian groceries also offer great deals on basmati rice and dried beans. And if you check the freezer case, you’ll no doubt find some exciting frozen vegan convenience foods.

If I still haven’t persuaded you to make a special trip to your nearest Indian grocery, perhaps this next tip will do the trick: most of these groceries sell fresh, locally-made vegan samosas and pakoras. They arrive fresh each morning and are kept warm under heat lamps. Invariably, these items are unbelievably cheap, yet deliver flavors you just can’t get from packaged food items. You can make a simple vegan meal at home, then serve it with some Indian grocery samosas and some mango pickle, and suddenly you have a borderline feast.

Also look for clamshell-packed prepared foods. These too are locally made, and include everything from dried spicy peas to desserts. Keep a special eye out for dhoklas—savory bright yellow cakes made from a batter of fermented chickpeas and rice. These improbably delicious cakes are India’s counterpart to Mexican corn bread, although they’re far more nutrient-rich owing to their use of chickpeas.

Cooking Vegan Indian Food at Home

The best way to get reliably vegan Indian food is to make it yourself. Since you’re in control of your ingredients, this is a surefire way to guarantee that your Indian food will be absolutely, positively vegan. Usually I advise people to cook only from vegan cookbooks, but Indian food tends to be much more veganizable than other cuisines. It’s usually just a matter of using vegetable oil instead of butter. You can also use unsweetened soy yogurt in place of dairy yogurt. The results never suffer from making these easy swaps.

Unless you’re extraordinarily ambitious, I urge you to start with the simple stuff, like North Indian stews served over basmati rice, and perhaps some flatbreads or pakoras. Fresh chutneys are also easy to prepare if you can get your hands on some tropical fruits like mango or coconut.

South Indian foods usually require special expertise and equipment. In particular, foods like dosas and chole bhature are way out of reach for the casual non-Indian cook.

If you’re planning to cook Indian food at home and you have an Indian grocery nearby, definitely head over there to lay in some supplies. Don’t forget to pick up some samosas or pakoras as an appetizer, plus a jar of pickled mangos or limes to garnish your meal.

There are a few vegan Indian cookbooks in print. I highly recommend Vegan Indian Cooking and Vegan Richa’s Indian Kitchen. Both are impressively comprehensive books crammed with beautiful color photography. They feature extensive introductory text that will acquaint you with the most common spices, ingredients, and cooking methods of Indian cuisine.

Let Vegan Indian Food into Your Life

Indian food—especially Indian restaurant food—may not be the world’s healthiest cuisine, but what it lacks in nutrition it more than makes up for in flavor. Some of the most delicious vegan dishes you’ll ever try are from India.

No matter where you live, you can probably find vegan Indian food locally. Sure, dining at Indian restaurants can pose challenges. But as long as you steer clear of hidden dairy products, you’ll find an unrivaled assortment of vegan possibilities. With just a little effort you can discover some incredible meals. In cases where navigating the menu seems unduly tricky, order the pakoras or a vegetable samosa as an appetizer, and then the chickpea curry (chana masala) with basmati rice for your entree. These items are nearly always vegan and almost every Indian restaurant includes them on the menu.

When you’re cooking at home, and therefore in total control of the ingredients, your vegan options are unlimited. Vegan Richa’s Indian Kitchen is a superb cookbook that will teach you to make all the classic North and South Indian dishes. Some of the India’s most delicious curry dishes are ideal for beginner cooks, and the cuisine also features more than its share of extravagant gourmet recipes. So if you’re wanting to eat a diverse and delicious vegan diet, Indian food deserves to be among the first cuisines you explore.

For further reading: Check out our Vegan Cooking Guide as well as our links to the best vegan cuisines.

I am indebted to my friends Anita Krishnan and Sonu Lamba for helping me get a better grasp of Indian cooking, and for correcting innumerable errors in early drafts of this article.

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