Guest article by Priya of The Indian Rose.
Vegan Food in India: How to Avoid Ghee
India is known as a vegetarian’s paradise, and rightly so. It’s not known as a vegan’s paradise, though, and here’s why: Indians are in love with dairy products in general, and with ghee in particular. You may be asking:
What is ghee? Is ghee vegan?
Ghee is a type of clarified butter that is traditionally made from cow milk. So no, it is not vegan. It’s a commonly used cooking fat in India, so it can sometimes sneak its way into otherwise vegan dishes. When it comes to finding vegan food in India, the biggest hurdle is avoiding ghee.
Actually, there is another type of ghee made from hydrogenated vegetable oil, which is called Vanaspati or vegetable ghee. This one is completely vegan!
Vanaspati has the same texture and consistency as cow ghee but is much cheaper, so some restaurants use this vegan butter instead of traditional ghee to keep their costs down.
Many Indians prefer cow ghee, though, and local dairy brands will often boast that their ghee is not just cow ghee but desi cow ghee from Indian cows. “Desi” means homeland, so desi ghee is ghee from the gir cow – the humpbacked type of cow that you see in India, as opposed to the black and white Jersey or Holstein cows found in the West.
This preference is because people believe that this type of cow ghee has health benefits and is of a higher quality than either vegetable ghee or cow ghee made with milk from foreign cows.
Vegetable ghee is a hydrogenated oil, so it does contain trans fats and is definitely not healthy. However, if you are only going to be in India for a holiday, eating vegetable ghee a few times is not going to kill you.
And of course, cow milk also causes many health problems when consumed by humans. We are not baby cows, after all!
The love for dairy in India might not be as evident as in French cuisine, but believe me, lots of Indian dishes contain some kind of dairy product. While cow’s milk, curd (yogurt) and paneer (a soft cheese) are easy to detect in a dish, ghee might be more challenging to spot. A dish that appears to be completely vegan may in reality be cooked with ghee.
If you don’t know what to look for and what questions to ask, you might end up consuming lots of ghee in India even when you think you are eating vegan. As an Indian raised in Europe, and as a “flexible” vegan, I’ll give you my best tips for finding truly vegan Indian food and steering clear of ghee when travelling to India.
1. Understand the culture
I believe that understanding the culture is the most important consideration for any vegan - or non-vegan, for that matter – when travelling to any country. So, let’s delve into veganism in India!
Vegetarianism in India
India has a rich and fascinating culture made up of different religious, ethnic, and cultural groups. Hinduism, the majority religion, encourages vegetarianism based on the principle of ahimsa, which can be translated as “abstaining from doing harm” to people as well as animals.
Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism, three of the main minority religions, also encourage various degrees of vegetarianism. About 30 to 40 percent of the Indian population is vegetarian, the highest percentage in the world.
Eating vegetarian food in India
It is incredibly easy to find 100% vegetarian food in India. What makes eating vegetarian food so easy in India?
First of all, labelling. Whether at the supermarket or in a restaurant, vegetarian food is clearly labelled as “veg” and marked by a green dot in a green square.
Secondly, the Indian cooking tradition does not involve the use of hidden meat products such as meat stock or fish sauce like in Southeast Asia.
Thirdly, there are plenty of “pure vegetarian” restaurants in India, and even non-vegetarian restaurants will have a separate section for vegetarian dishes on the menu.
Fourthly, in India, eggs are generally not considered to be a vegetarian food. So, any food you see labelled as vegetarian in a restaurant or supermarket should be completely free of meat, fish and eggs.
All good news so far!
Veganism in India
The big truth about this vegetarian haven called India is that it is not a vegan haven. Veganism is not a traditional diet in India.
This is not because of a lack of interest in animal rights. Indeed, cows are believed to be sacred in Hinduism. So how can the dairy industry coexist with this belief? Even in Jainism, which prohibits the consumption of fermented foods and root vegetables on the basis of ahimsa, consumption of non-fermented dairy products is allowed.
In the past, dairy products were homemade from the milk of cows who lived within the household and were treated with love. Milking a family animal was not perceived as a form of violence.
Of course, the dairy industry today bears no resemblance to the idyllic vision of pastoralism in ancient India. View this video to see how dairy cows are treated in India in the 21st century.
Even on small, organic farms, slaughter-free dairy farming has become unsustainable in India. Have you ever wondered why there are so many cows roaming the streets of Indian cities?
Here’s why: once a dairy cow’s milk production drops and she becomes a financial burden rather than an asset, a farmer who doesn’t want to send his cow to the slaughterhouse will simply let her loose on the streets to fend for herself.
She is one of the lucky ones, of course. Many “spent” dairy cows in India do end up in slaughterhouses.
But, things are changing. Because of the deep respect for animal life in Indian culture, and thanks to the increasing awareness about the violence of industrial milk production, the vegan movement in India is growing.
Vegan products in India, including vegan paneer and other dairy alternatives, are becoming increasingly widespread. In Bangalore and other major cities, you will find a vibrant vegan community in India.
While veganism is on the rise, as yet there is no label for vegan food in India in restaurants and supermarkets, so you’ll need to figure things out for yourself, and hopefully this guide will help you do so.
Use of dairy products in India
The types of dairy products used in Indian cooking are relatively few: cow’s milk, cream, paneer, curd and ghee. All of these products are very easy to detect and avoid... apart from ghee!
2. Ghee in Indian food: how, where, how much
Ghee is used to prepare the tempering for dals and curries, for the preparation of traditional sweets, and as a finishing touch for flat breads and rice. However, ghee in India is not as prevalent as many people think.
There are loads of traditional dishes that are made with vegetable oils, namely mustard oil, groundnut oil, and, more recently, sunflower oil. In Indian homes, people use both ghee and vegetable oils, depending on the region and the type of dish they are preparing.
Another important thing to know is that many budget restaurants do not use cow ghee because of its high cost. They will use vegetable oils or vegetable ghee instead.
Where are you travelling to?
When trying to avoid ghee in India, it’s important to consider which part of the country you are travelling to. While ghee is used throughout India, temperings made with ghee are much more common in the North than in the South.
The North, and especially the Punjab region, prides itself on its generous use of ghee, while in the South people tend to use vegetable oils. Moreover, in Southern India coconut milk is preferred over cream for curries and dals, and there is a much greater variety of vegetables compared with in the North.
This means that when you eat a vegetarian meal in a South Indian restaurant, it will likely also be a vegan meal. Most traditional Indian vegan recipes come from the Southern Indian cooking tradition.
If, on the other hand, you are travelling to India for a yoga / meditation / Ayurveda retreat, that’s a world apart! It will be very easy for you to find vegan Indian meals inside the resort or ashram, as well as in the main “hippie towns”, whether in the North or in the South. By hippie towns, I mean places like Pushkar, Goa, Varkala, Manali, Gokarna and Rishikesh.
If you are staying in big cities, you can find vegan food in India in supermarkets and restaurants pretty easily.
3. Practicalities: how do I avoid ghee and make sure my meal is vegan?
Will people understand the concept of veganism?
This is a very important question. In India, you cannot assume that waiters or restaurant staff will know exactly which foods a vegan does and does not consume.
Veganism is still new in India, so you need to put an extra effort into explaining, or listing, what you do and don’t eat. In short, you cannot just say “I am a vegan” and assume you’ll be served a vegan meal.
If you get an invitation to eat at someone’s home, it is best to explain to them in advance what you don’t eat. You can tell them that, in addition to being a vegetarian, you also do not eat any kind of dairy products, including ghee.
You might attract some curiosity, but when you politely explain that you don’t like the treatment of animals in the milk industry, people will understand and empathise.
Educated people living in big cities, on the other hand, are generally familiar with the concept of veganism, so you won’t need to explain it in so much detail.
Which foods are vegan in India?
The general rule is: dry vegetarian dishes, especially from the South, will not contain ghee or other dairy products. Creamy preparations, i.e. curries from the North, are usually made with ghee and a small quantity of yogurt. Creamy preparations from the South often do not contain ghee or cream, just coconut milk. Fried vegetarian street food snacks are also usually made with vegetable oil and are therefore vegan.
See this link for some of the best vegan Indian dishes. A more extensive list of vegan and non-vegan Indian dishes follows below.
GREEN LIGHT: GHEE-FREE, VEGAN INDIAN DISHES
North Indian Dishes
We explained that it’s easier to stay clear of ghee in the South, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find vegan options in the North. Here are a few Northern specialties that are typically vegan:
South Indian Dishes
YELLOW LIGHT: VEGETARIAN DISHES THAT MIGHT CONTAIN GHEE IN INDIA (WORTH ASKING)
RED LIGHT: VEGETARIAN DISHES TO STAY AWAY FROM (NON-VEGAN)
Ideas for a vegan meal when visiting India
Vegetarian Indo-Chinese dishes such as Chinese Bhel, Chile Chana, fried rice and noodles are now considered to be part of Indian cuisine and are mostly vegan
There is an abundance of markets selling fruits, vegetables, rice and dried fruit, so you can easily grab a vegan snack or try your hand at vegan Indian cooking yourself. Meat markets are not common, and they are often separate from vegetable markets.
Supermarkets in big cities sell soy-based products, including soy paneer
McDonald's offers a vegan burger in India, ask for no mayo when ordering
White basmati rice is cooked without a tempering, so it is vegan and a safe option if all other options fail (which is unlikely).
How to explain that you are a vegan in India
You will find that the level of spoken English is generally good in India, especially for basic communication. However, while many people speak good English, and educated city people know what being a vegan means, if you’re heading off the beaten track it’s best to learn how to express what you do and don’t eat.
Here are the most useful Hindi words for a vegan travelling in India.
I am a vegan: मैं एक शाकाहारी हूँ (main ek shakahari hum)
Vegan: शाकाहारी (shakahari)
Vegetable सब्जी (sabzi)
Only vegetables: सिर्फ़ सब्जी (sirf sabzi)
No: नहीं (nahin)
I do not eat ------- (add words from below): मैं ------- नहीं खाता (main -------- nahin khata/i) add the “i” (pronounced as “e”) at the end if you are female
Ghee: घी (ghee)
Cheese: पनीर (paneer)
Milk: दूध (doodh)
Butter: मक्खन (makhan)
Cream: मलाई (malai)
Yogurt: दही (dahi)
Example: मैं घी नहीं खाता - main ghee nahin khata (for male) / मैं घी नहीं खाती - main ghee nahin khatee (for female): I do not eat ghee
Thank you: धन्यवाद (dhanyavād)
Ghee in Tamil: நெய் (nei)
Top tips for a smooth vegan trip to India
Pure vegetarian restaurants: find restaurants labelled as “pure vegetarian” or “pure veg”. They won’t use any meat, fish or eggs, and the staff will likely understand your diet.
Jain restaurants: Jainism has a very important animal rights component. Jain people are more likely to be sensitive to veganism, and their restaurants are more likely to accommodate your needs
VegPlanet: have a look at the online version of India’s first vegan magazine for restaurant openings, events and info
Have a wonderful vegan trip to incredible India!
About the Author
Priya is a writer at The Indian Rose, a website aimed at sharing Indian traditions including yoga, Ayurveda, healthy eating habits, beauty and fashion. She is interested in the ancient Indian way of life and how Indian philosophy and traditions can be adapted to improve modern hectic life.
The Indian Rose