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Vegan India: Q&A with Prachi Jain
In June 2019, I will be leading a vegan India tour in collaboration with a vegan tour company called Escape To. I’m super excited about this opportunity, and I know that many of you are too!
I’ve received lots of questions about vegan food in India, traveling in India, and the state of the vegan movement in the country.
I figured the best way to answer your questions was to go straight to the expert, so I sat down with Prachi Jain, co-founder of Escape To, to pick her brain about everything vegan in India. Here’s what she had to say:
Why are so many Indians vegetarian?
Meat-free diets in India can be traced back to the Indus Valley civilization, and a great reverence and respect for animal life shows up in many religious and cultural texts. Three major religions of India - Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism - all encourage their followers to practice ahimsa, which is non-violence toward other living beings.
While Hinduism and Buddhism offer exceptions to the vegetarian diet, Jainism is much stricter in that there would never be a scenario in which a Jainist could accept meat. It's actually pretty amazing that India's vegetarian diet has still survived, given that the country was ruled by Muslim and British invaders at various points in history.
In addition to religious motivations, many Indians have also adopted an Ayurvedic diet, which eschewes meat completely.
Is egg a vegetarian food in India?
It is not. Most vegetarian Indians don't eat omelets … although they are sometimes more relaxed about eating cakes and cookies that are baked with eggs. There are many bakeries that make eggless cakes, though. In fact, many bakeries and packaging in India carry the egg-free label to make it easier for people.
In India will vegetarian food be the national food soon?
That is hard to predict. I remain hopeful that the vegan lifestyle will spread, and it is spreading thanks to entrepreneurship. It has an uphill battle, because actually a lot of youth in India are turning to a meat-based diet.
I believe this is a result of foreign direct investment into India, through which international chains like KFC, Burger King and McDonalds have been able to set up thousands of restaurants across the country and showcase an American lifestyle that has attracted the youth.
For example, a 16-year-old Hindu might not be allowed to have chicken at home but can go grab a chicken burger with their friends at McDonalds after school. International fast food chains have made it easy, accessible and cool to eat things like chicken and fish.
Young people view eating meat as a form of rebellion against both their religion and their parents. It will be hard for the entire country to overcome this change in lifestyle and diet, but, as I stated earlier, I remain very hopeful about veganism spreading rapidly across India.
India has an entrepreneurial spirit, and if investors can allow vegan startups to thrive, I think there is a strong chance that the vegan diet in India will overtake both vegetarian and meat-based diets.
The Indian vegan movement is growing throughout not just South India but also North India, including in unexpected places like Punjab and Jaipur.
Why are soy-based products not very popular in India despite the massive vegetarian population?
Consciously or unconsciously, many Indians follow the Ayurvedic diet and principles in their everyday life. Soy is not considered healthy in Ayurveda. Practically anything you eat in Ayurveda must be easy to digest or help aid digestion in some capacity.
Ayurveda rules out soy as being hard to digest. So, I believe some people might be avoiding it from that perspective.
The second and perhaps more important reason is the aversion that many Indian vegetarians have towards meat and things that look like or have the same texture as meat. Mock meats are not as popular as in the West, and some people will refuse to eat them because they are not able to disassociate it in their mind from animal flesh.
However, mock meat brands are slowly popping up across India, and a favorite street food of young people is soya chaap, which is regularly available at all the night markets. I am seeing more soy products, and again, it is the youth that’s leading the way in consuming these new products.
On a personal level, I could never see my strict Jain vegetarian grandmother eat soy or mock meat, as it would turn her off completely.
Is veganism widely understood in India?
It's certainly not widely understood. I would stay it's still a fringe movement. It's gaining steady popularity in the bigger cities, but vegan communities and vegan restaurants are also popping up in unexpected places like Punjab.
Many Indian vegetarians do not understand the changes that farming and food production have gone through in the last few decades. They still have an idealistic view of families raising cows, so they don't fully believe that the dairy industry could be abusive in a culture where cows are supposed to be revered.
Veganism has grown in two types of markets in India. The first is in cities where entrepreneurship and eco-conscious initiatives thrive, like Bangalore, Mumbai and Auroville.
The second is in areas with yoga and meditation retreats and ashrams, such as Goa, Rishikesh and Dharamshala. There are several fantastic local and international initiatives that have really moved the needle on vegan education in India.
However, India still has a long way to go when it comes to animal liberation, health and environmental issues as they relate to the vegan movement.
Which non-vegan ingredients do vegans need to look out for when ordering food in India?
Certainly ghee, which is clarified butter. You'll have to ask restaurants to make sure they don't give you daal (lentil curry), roti (bread), or subzis (various vegetable curries) that have been cooked with ghee.
What's tough is that sometimes there's very little ghee in the dish, so you can't detect it. Therefore, it's incredibly important to confirm that your food hasn't been cooked in ghee. Here are some more tips on avoiding ghee in India. Vegetable oil is often used in place of ghee, so it’s not as hard to avoid as some people think.
Milk powder is another ingredient that should be checked for when buying biscuits, cakes, cereals and bread. In North India, they'll use heavy cream for certain curries (like rajma, which is basically a bean curry).
You have to be careful, because a vegan dish that you may have had at a family's home (like rajma) might be non-vegan at a restaurant. They will add butter and heavy cream to it for added creamy flavor.
If you order a thaali, make sure you tell them NOT to give you a bowl of yogurt and rice pudding, which is often common in India. And of course, avoid anything that says paneer, because that is 100% cheese!
Can you explain the importance of dairy products in Indian culture? How are Indians responding to the idea of giving up dairy?
Dairy is an important part of Indian religion and Ayurvedic diet recommendations. It’s also something that parents provide to their children during the early years of development, so it has nostalgic associations with childhood for many people.
As a child in India, you grow up hearing mythological tales of Lord Krishna as a young boy being mischievous and stealing butter because he loved dairy.
In Ayurveda, they recommend dollops of ghee during the winter time for its "warming" properties for the body. At home, parents make their children drink glasses of milk to keep their brain sharp and their bones healthy.
It’s also important to mention the use of ghee and other dairy products in religious ceremonies. At weddings in parts of North India, for example, the bride and groom may dig for gifts in a bowl filled with cow’s milk. These gifts could be coins or jewelry. The milk is then thrown out right after the ceremony. What a waste!
Ghee is also used to light the diya candles during Diwali, so that the fire will burn for longer. I actually got rather upset this Diwali thinking about how many thousands of pounds of ghee was being used to light these diyas when oil could have easily been used instead.
So, there are these strong religious and cultural traditions tied to dairy that Indians have been following for hundreds of years. It makes sense that many people are resistant to the idea of breaking with these traditions all at once.
You also have to really take a local approach to educating the population about dairy, and this approach has to be different from the ones used in the U.S.
For example, showing images of dairy farm abuse to Indians living in rural areas may not work, since they probably have a local villager who has an open farm where cows are treated much better than in the U.S. Also, they may even have their own cows, so these kinds of videos wouldn't really impact them.
Indians who are becoming conscious of veganism due to its health benefits seem to be responding very well to outreach. Dr. Nandita Shah regularly conducts diabetes reversal programs in which a vegan diet is part of the retreat and the educational programming.
Several of her students and attendees have actually started vegan startups of their own and/or continued growing the community.
So, I think a health and environment-based approach to removing dairy from India's consciousness could be a good approach, along with allowing dairy-alternative entrepreneurship to thrive so that Indians feel it's easy to substitute out.
How much of India’s population is purely vegan?
I'm not actually sure of this data ... I have not come across it ever, and I welcome any readers to share these stats.
Why do some Indian people eat only vegan food in the name of religion?
Many of the pillars of veganism align very well with Indian religions. Jainism in particular is a religion that advocates for non-violence toward all living beings as its core truth.
In Jain sacred texts, there is a reference to when milk can be consumed by humans. It should only be taken from the cow once her calf has finished suckling, recognizing that milk is produced for the cow's offspring.
I strongly believe that if the conditions when Jainism was founded had been the same as they are today, Jainism would be a purely vegan religion.
As people are starting to learn more about the impact of the consumption of animal byproducts on the animals themselves, on the human rights violations that are happening within the meat and dairy industries, and on the environmental health of the land, they realize that the religion can be interpreted and applied through the lens of veganism better than through vegetarianism.
How easy is it to find vegan food in India?
It is quite easy actually. My go-to resource is the restaurant guide put together by Vegan First. They have a really good pulse on documenting the vegan movement in India, and their content is updated daily.
However, if you happen to be in a place where you can't find a vegan restaurant, and you suspect that there is ghee in all the curries, search instead for a Tibetan or Indo-Chinese restaurant. There are thousands of these across the country, and their vegetarian menus are mostly vegan, as they rarely use dairy.
Some of my favorite vegan dishes that are easily available in these restaurants are gobi manchurian (similar to the Ikea vegan Swedish balls), veg fried rice, Thupka noodle soup, and of course veggie momos.
The best part about being vegan in India is that it will be more straightforward than other countries. You won't find accidental chicken broth or fish broth in things like soup, rice and curries that seem to be vegetarian.
And many Indian dishes can be veganized easily, especially in the places we'll be traveling to, such as Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu. Here are some examples of vegan Indian dishes that are often vegan and can easily be veganized. Despite the prevalence of dairy products, there are even a few vegan Indian desserts!
Are there any vegan food festivals in India?
Yes! There are several. There's one that just happened in Mumbai called the Ahimsa Fest, and it was jam-packed with thought leaders, doctors and entrepreneurs who are doing incredible things for the vegan movement in India.
The South Indian city of Bangalore held its first vegan festival this year, called Wilderfest, with several of the city's vegan entrepreneurs and food startups. The oldest running vegan festival is put on by the Satvic Vegan Society in a forest a few hours outside of Bangalore.
Which are the best vegan restaurants in India?
My favorite is certainly the first ever vegan restaurant in India, Carrots in Bangalore. They have a running list of local vegan startups and do their best to support and grow them. They also do a lot of activism and educational workshops and are spearheading the vegan movement in the south of India.
Bean me Up in Goa has a lovely Goan vibe with an outdoor seating area and a lovely BnB attached. I've hosted several vegan interns in India, and they loved going to the Satchitananda Raw Food Restaurant in Auroville. They do amazing things with raw vegan food there!
What advice do you have for first-time visitors to India?
Get in touch with the local vegan community in India. They have potlucks and events all the time. They may have a room to spare in their home and will want to show you all of their favorite vegan versions of Indian recipes.
Oh, and take a vegan Indian cooking class. Even if you happen to be traveling to a place that doesn't have a lot of vegans, just ask your cooking instructor to not cook with ghee, yogurt or milk.
Also, my recommendation is to travel with a group first and then go solo if you'd like. I love India and find it very safe to travel around. However, it's important to get the hang of things with a group of other travelers at least for a few days before you venture out on your own.
That could mean either going on a short, organized group trip or going together with a group of friends. Pack some healthy vegan snacks as a backup!
Beyond tasting authentic vegan Indian food, what other aspects of veganism in India will tour participants experience on our vegan India tour?
I'm really excited about this trip because it provides a good taste of India through the lens of veganism, from its history to the present, and then looking forward to the future of the vegan India movement.
Escape To did not start out as a tour agency. For the first few years, we hosted long-term international volunteers in India.
This experience has allowed us to create an itinerary that goes way beyond the typical first-time India trip. The activities we include are very much the types of things a vegan expat would do who has lived in India for several months.
We're going to visit lots of amazing vegan entrepreneurs who are creating vegan products in India. We will do workshops with them, including one at a vegan chocolate factory.
We will learn about the challenges and opportunities that a wildlife rehabilitation center in a large city faces, visit a commune of over 200 vegans and learn from their lifestyle, and also learn about lots of Indian food that can easily be veganized if it isn't already vegan.
We'll do cooking classes, watch a traditional dance show, visit an all-vegetarian night market and pick out the vegan street food, and watch the sunrise over the beach! Pani Puri is one of my favorite street food snacks that we'll be trying on the trip, and it’s always vegan.
I also think community is incredibly important when you are vegan, so travelers should expect to make amazing friendships through the experience.