How to Avoid Ghee as a Vegan in India

Guest article by Priya of The Indian Rose.

Vegan Food in India - How to Avoid Ghee in India as a Vegan

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.

Indian buffet restaurant - vegan food in India

At a buffet in India, you'll likely find plenty of vegan dishes. Just ask which dishes are made with ghee.

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

India vegetarian travel

India has more vegetarians than any other country in the world.

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.

Veg and Non-Veg Symbols in India Vegetarian Non-Vegetarian

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.

Cow in Varanasi India

A cow ambles down an alleyway in Varanasi, India.

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.

Explore India with The Nomadic Vegan!


Want to see for yourself how young vegan entrepreneurs are creating a vibrant vegan movement in India? In June 2019, Wendy Werneth, creator of The Nomadic Vegan, will be leading a vegan trip to India. Click here to find out more!

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.

dosa - best vegan Indian dishes

Masala dosa is one of many Indian dishes that is typically made without ghee.

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.

idli - vegan Indian meals

Idli is a popular ghee-free and vegan food in southern India.

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 yoghurt. 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.

fried street snacks - vegan Indian cooking

Street food snacks are fried in vegetable oil rather than ghee

GREEN LIGHT: GHEE-FREE, VEGAN INDIAN DISHES

Snacks
  • Samosas
  • Aloo Tikki (potato fritters)
  • Onion Bhaji (onion fritters)
  • Panipuri (fried crispy bread with veggies in a cold sauce)
  • Pakoras (vegetable fritters)
  • Chilla (chickpea flour pancakes)
  • Bhelpuri (fluffed rice and vegetables)
Breads
  • Papadums - appalam in Tamil (a wafer-thin, crispy bread made of fried pulses)
  • Puri (crispy round fried bread)
  • Roti (whole wheat flatbread) - leave off the optional ghee spread, of course
  • Chapati (similar to roti but cooked differently) - also leave off the ghee
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:

  • Aloo Gobhi - potatoes and cauliflower
  • Vegetarian Kebabs (with no paneer, obviously)
  • Saag Aloo (spinach and potato)
  • Aloo Masala (potato dry curry)
South Indian Dishes
  • Masala Dosa (thin, crispy pancake made of rice and black chickpea flour, filled with potatoes)
  • Idli (rice and lentil cakes)
  • Vada (savoury donuts)
  • Vegetables Vindaloo (curry with vinegar)
  • Vegetable Patties
  • Sambar (vegetable stew with lentils)
  • Idiappam (steamed rice flour noodles)
  • Rasam (tamarind juice soup)
  • Upma (semolina porridge)
  • All South Indian vegetarian dry curries are generally vegan
  • Vegetarian South Indian thalis are mostly vegan. Yoghurt, if any, is served on the side.

YELLOW LIGHT: VEGETARIAN DISHES THAT MIGHT CONTAIN GHEE IN INDIA (WORTH ASKING)

  • Baigan Ka Bharta (aubergines and tomatoes)
  • Chana Masala (chickpea curry)
  • Rajma Masala (kidney bean curry)
  • Vegetable Jalfrezi (red curry)
  • Bhindi Masala (a curry of okra)
  • Dal Chawal (yellow lentils stew) (see this detailed explanation of whether dal is vegan)
  • Dal Tadka (pulses with a tempering): might be made with ghee or oil, yoghurt might be added
  • Paratha (a type of bread, can be made with either ghee or oil)
  • Of course, make sure that roti, dosa and chapati are not spread with ghee

RED LIGHT: VEGETARIAN DISHES TO STAY AWAY FROM (NON-VEGAN)

  • Dal Makhani (dark lentils with cream) - makhan means butter
  • Dum Aloo (creamy potatoes)
  • Khichdi (rice and lentils) - contains yoghurt
  • Kadhi (gravy with fritters) - contains yoghurt
  • Vegetable Dopiaza (veggies with lots of onions) - contains yoghurt
  • Tandoori vegetables are usually marinated in yoghurt
  • Pav Bhaji (street food vegetable curry with soft bread) - made with butter
  • Chaats (mixture of potatoes, bread and yoghurt)
  • Vada Pav (Bombay burger) is often heated in butter
  • Naan (a puffy, leavened bread) contains milk in the dough and often ghee on top
  • Most Indian sweets are made with dairy, though there are some exceptions

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

Take note of this list of vegan restaurants in India. Also check the HappyCow listings for your particular destination in India.

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.

Priya

The Indian Rose

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About Wendy Werneth

Intrepid traveler, vegan foodie and animal lover. I uncover vegan treasures all around the world, so you can be vegan anywhere and spread compassion everywhere.

4 Comments

  1. Really helpful…thank you!

  2. What’s your thoughts for those living in India about regular consumption of Vegetable/ Vanaspati Ghee? As per the internet, this Ghee is mentioned as not good for health.

Tell us what you think in the comments!