If you are a vegetarian who loves flavorful food, then you'll love India. Around 30% of Indians are vegetarian and because of the country's large population, this means that India contains more vegetarians than the rest of the world combined.
Vegetarianism has existed in India since ancient times and vegetarian food here has had thousands of years to develop great flavors and wholesome dishes.
In this article, we will discuss everything you need to know about vegetarian and vegan food in India including top dishes and restaurants to try.
Why Vegetarian Food is So Common in India
Religion plays an important role in the number of vegetarians in India. Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists all advocate vegetarianism to some extent. All three religions believe in ahimsa or the non-violence and non-injury of animals.
While some Hindus and Buddhists choose to be vegetarians, following a plant-based diet is a requirement in Jainism where it is believed to be a sin to kill anything living, even mosquitos and rats.
One thing to note is that Indian vegetarianism is slightly different from the western version. Most Indian vegetarians also do not eat eggs and may avoid consuming too much onion and garlic.
Vegetarianism has spread widely throughout India and finding vegetarian food here is almost effortless. Most Indian restaurants split their menus into veg and non-veg sections so it is easy for customers to choose the dishes they prefer.
A great place to start with Indian vegetarian food is to try thali. Thali is an Indian way of eating that includes many small bowls of vegetarian dishes on a large tray. With thali, you can try multiple veg dishes and see which ones you like the best.
A thali will include a variety of dishes such as a lentil dish (dal), a paneer dish, a chickpea dish, and a potato dish. These dishes are often served with onions, rice, and an Indian bread called chapatti.
Clear food-labeling laws in India make things easier for vegetarian and vegan travelers even when buying packaged snacks. Packaged food products sold in India must be marked to indicate whether it is lacto-vegetarian (also avoids eggs) or non-lacto vegetarian (only avoids meat products).
What is Indian Vegetarian Food?
Indian vegetarian food is similar to Indian non-veg food in that most dishes have a gravy. This gravy is often made from vegetables like onions and tomatoes. Sometimes gravies are made from cashews or spinach. Many different spices are added into the gravy to give it flavor. Most dishes are either eaten with rice or bread.
Non-gravy dishes are often referred to as "dry" and called sabzis. Sabzis are roasted vegetables that are covered in spices and eaten with bread.
Commonly Used Vegetables and Other Ingredients
The most common vegetables used in Indian vegetarian dishes are probably onions and tomatoes. These two vegetables are the base of most gravy dishes and are cooked down until they make a thick sauce.
Many vegetarian dishes also include typical Indian spices such as cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, clove, cardamom, black pepper, and red chilies. Veg dishes are also likely to include dairy products such as ghee (clarified butter), yogurt, and paneer (an Indian cheese).
Indian vegetarian cuisine incorporates a lot of potatoes, chickpeas, lentils, and other types of beans as the main ingredients. Eggplant, okra, broccoli, and cauliflower are also commonly added.
Indian cuisine is full of health benefits, especially for those who eat vegetarian food. Generally, Indian veg dishes are very low in fat and high in vitamins and minerals.
Chickpeas, lentils, and beans are all commonly found in Indian dishes and are a great source of protein. Most dishes contain a mixture of many vegetables along with around 10 or so spices that also add their own unique health benefits.
The large majority of Indian food is also made from locally grown products that are cooked fresh and don't include all the preservatives that are common in western foods.
Indian yogurts are naturally made, preservative-free, and are packed full of probiotics for gut health. Raita is a yogurt dish that is mixed with spices and fresh veggies and is served as a side to help cool your stomach after a spicy meal.
Ordering Vegetarian Food in India
Now you know all about Indian vegetarian food, but how do you order it?
Firstly, all Indian restaurants will have their menus split into "veg" and "non-veg" sections to make it easy to order vegetarian dishes. Once you found the veg section, go ahead and order a couple gravy dishes and sabzis that sound good to you.
Aloo gobi, palak paneer, and dal are great places to start.
Most Indian food is eaten family-style, so make your order big enough for the whole table. The rule of thumb is that the number of main dishes you order should be the number of people at the table plus one.
After you order your main dishes, go ahead and order some bread and rice to eat them with.
Popular Vegetarian Dishes to Try
There are plenty of options for great vegetarian dishes in India, but here are some of our favorites.
Malai Kofta is a delicious vegetarian alternative to meatballs. The dish is made by combining potatoes, a mixture of vegetables, paneer cheese, heavy cream, and spices, forming them into balls. They are stuffed with chopped nuts and raisins. The koftas are then deep-fried and served in well-seasoned gravy.
Palak Paneer is made with cubes of paneer cheese which are pan-fried and then simmered in spinach-based gravy. Flavored with fenugreek leaves, onion, garlic, tomato, and Indian spices, this dish is a healthy meal that will also satisfy the taste buds.
Mutter Paneer is another great vegetarian choice. Mutter is the Hindi word for peas which is the primary ingredient in this dish along with paneer cheese. This dish incorporates traditional Indian spices such as coriander, cumin, turmeric, and garam masala. Mutter Paneer is usually served with Indian breads such as naan or roti.
Aloo Gobi is a savory sabzi or dry dish that's main ingredients are cauliflower and potatoes. This dish is typically spiced with turmeric, curry leaves, and sometimes kalonji. The turmeric gives the dish a yellowish hue, while garlic, ginger, onion, coriander, tomatoes, peas, and cumin round off the flavor.
Dal is one of the staple dishes of India that is served in most homes almost every day. Dal is the name of a lentil stew that is often seasoned with turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, asafoetida, and red chilies. There are three versions of the dish including yellow dal, green dal, and black dal.
Popular Vegetarian Snacks and Street Food
Street food is a large part of Indian culture and something that most people don't want to miss out on when they visit. If you are a vegetarian, then you are in luck because the vast majority of Indian street food is made without meat.
Pakoras are not only vegetarian, but also vegan, and are made by coating a mixture of veggies in chickpea flour and frying them in oil. They are usually made with shredded onion, potato, eggplant, cauliflower, and other available vegetables. Pakoras are a popular appetizer and snack.
Veggie Kebabs are also common in India and are as tasty as the meat versions. It is common to see paneer kebabs or hara bhara kebabs restaurant menus. Hara Bhara Kebabs are made from spinach, peas, and coriander leaves (cilantro) that are ground together to achieve the same texture as meat.
Pav Bhaji is a popular street food that comes from Mumbai but is served across the country. Pav bhaji includes a sauce that is made from an assortment of vegetables including potato, cauliflower, tomato, and peas. This sauce is then served on a toasted buttered bun.
Pani Puri is also known as gol gappa, puchka, or gup and is considered the national symbol of Indian street food. These crispy little bread balls are stuffed with a seasoned mixture of potatoes and onions and garnished with tamarind, mint, green chilies, and water. This dish is also vegan.
Vegan Indian food
Traveling as a vegan can be extremely difficult. We know plenty of people who have been unable to find healthy plant-based meals while traveling and have resorted to eating raw veggies and fruits in their hotel room. Luckily, this won't be the case in India.
Besides being good for vegetarians, many Indian restaurants tend to be extremely vegan-friendly. So if you are looking for a flavorful plant-based meal, you need not miss out on enjoying a satisfying meal when traveling in India.
Many Indian dishes are simply referred to as vegetarian, while they are 100% vegan and uncompromisingly delicious. The concept of veganism isn't too big in India so vegan dishes are often lumped together with vegetarian dishes on menus.
If you are a vegan, you will need to make sure a dish doesn't include ghee, paneer, or yogurt. Although ghee is widely used in Indian cooking, oils such as mustard and coconut are also in abundance and are an easy vegan replacement.
Popular Indian Vegan Dishes to Try
Here are some delicious vegan dishes to try while traveling in India.
Chana masala is sometimes called chole and is a delicious chickpea curry. This dish is full of nutrients from the chickpeas and full of flavor from the tomatoes, onions, coriander leaves, and various spices.
Chana masala is often eaten with a thin, puffed bread called puri and is a staple food in Delhi.
Rajma is another healthy vegan dish that consists of kidney beans in a spicy red sauce. Rajma is often eaten with rice and is a staple in Indian homes across the country.
Dum Aloo is a popular Kashmiri dish that consists of deep-fried potatoes that are cooked slowly in a spicy gravy. This dish is almost always vegan, although some restaurants serve it with yogurt mixed in to add a creaminess to the gravy.
Masala Dosa is a staple south Indian breakfast food that is always vegan. Dosas are thin crepes that are made a fermented rice batter. The batter is spooned out onto a griddle where it is cooked until crispy.
Top Indian Vegetarian Restaurants
If there is one prominent diet-trend that has taken the world it is vegetarianism. The vegetarian diet has been an integral part of Indian culture for a long time and the country is full of restaurants that only serve vegetarian food.
Here are some recommended vegetarian restaurants located across major cities in India.
Carnatic Cafe, Delhi
Carnatic Cafe brings you some friendly South Indian dishes. Aside from the regular favorites like Mysore Masala Dosa and Rava Masala Dosa, it offers a wide array of special dosas such as Bombat Dosa and Mallesharam 18th Cross, named after the famous street in Bangalore.
Budget: a meal for two will cost around 10USD.
Address: M-21, M Block Market, Greater Kailash (GK) 2, New Delhi
If you want a fine dining experience, Tuskers is the perfect place. Serving authentic Gujarati and Rajasthani dishes, this restaurant is bound to make you fall in love with Indian food.
The menu has an array of regional dishes ranging from Gatte ki Sabzi, Dal Ka Halwa to desserts like Paan Kulfi along with a lavish Gujarati Thali.
Budget: a meal for two will cost around US$40.
Address: Sofitel Hotel, C 57, Bandra Kurla Complex, Mumbai
Hamsa is a fine dining vegetarian venue that is perfect for a romantic candle-lit meal. It features some elegant touches like hand embroidered wall panels.
The menu is dominated by North Indian signature dishes but the few South Indian dishes like the Gongura Annam are also incredible.
Budget: a meal for two will cost around 25USD.
Address: B. Ramachandra Adithanar Road, Gandhi Nagar
The Higher Taste, Bangalore
This restaurant serves numerous dishes with exotic flavors. There are some more familiar dishes like the Gobi Kempu Bezule, a Mangalore-style crisp-fried cauliflower.
A favorite is the Vazhaipoo Mulungai Kolambu, a coconut-based gravy with drumsticks and banana flowers. For something similarly delicious, you have to try the Bukhare ki Dal and butter naan.
Budget: a meal for two will cost around US$17.
Address: SKCON Temple Complex, Hare Krishna Hill, Chord Road, Rajajinagar
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