India is well known for having one of the largest populations of vegetarians in the world, making it quite easy for vegetarians to find wholesome meals everywhere while traveling. But is it possible to be vegan in India, in a country that views the cow sacred for it’s milk, and with milk even holding medicinal value in the ancient science of auyurvedic medicine?
As a vegan in India, my short answer is yes, it is possible to be vegan here, but the long answer is a little more complicated, and depends on how long you are traveling in India, and what kind of travel you will embark upon. If you traveling for just a few weeks, or even a month, and staying in places where you can choose your own food, and if you are in cities with more western influence, it will be very easy to remain totally vegan. I have been in Rishikesh for the past two weeks, and though I sometimes forget I am even in India since it is crowded with Westerners, the Western hippies have brought their influence to Rishikesh, in the form of vegan food. Oddly enough, I actually have not found very good Indian food here, which is disappointing, but having all the salad, falafel, hummus, and even coconut milk masala chai I could want make up for the lack of tasty Indian food, for the time being.
If you are not in a Westernized part of India, many Indian curries and dishes are naturally vegan, even if they are not labeled as such. In Indian restaurants, rice and dal is always a good vegan choice, but I always double check that there is no cream in the particular dal. In the ashram where I was staying for a month, the food was very simple, usually rice with a veggie stew (sambhar), and the yogurt was served on the side so I could choose not to have it. So even if something doesn’t say it is vegan, it might be, or it can be made without cream or butter, so don’t be afraid to ask.
The tricky part begins if you are invited to an Indian home, or if you are with Indian friends who want to share their food culture with you. Since coming to India, I have loosened up on all of my dietary restrictions for practical purposes. Since I am traveling long term, on a budget, and with the goal of really immersing into the culture and learning about food, I have found there are times I should be flexible.
One of the most beautiful things about India is Indian hospitality. There is a Sanskrit saying that translates to “guests are like Gods” and if you go to any Indian home you will really feel this. Indian people love to invite you to their homes, and they really really love to feed you. Food is a huge part of Indian culture, and Indian people love to share their food with you. As a person who also loves to cook and serve people, I understand the joy that comes from serving guests. So to me, it is rude and difficult in some senses to turn down their hospitality when I am in their home. Of course I make sure that they serve me veg food (verses non veg food), which is never a problem, and many people are even shocked and curious to meet a western vegetarian. But when it comes to dairy, there is sometimes cream in the dish, or ghee (Indian clarified butter), and it is difficult to explain why I do not eat these ingredients, especially if there is a language barrier involved.
In India, milk is sacred and people here really do not understand why I would not eat this sacred food. The best explanation I have found to explain veganism to Indians is that cows are not treated with respect in the West, however this does not excuse me from having milk in India.
So, I have consciously chosen to be more flexible with my diet for traveling purposes and to be able to enjoy the beautiful food culture of India. In India I have been working on many aspects of myself for personal growth, and control of my food, and control in general, was something I really needed to work on. I remember the first few weeks in the ashram, I was really struggling with the food served to me. I think I even cried at one point because I was frustrated with the white rice and white potatoes all the time. But in reality, those who have food regularly in this world are lucky to have it. Many people cry everyday out of hunger and starvation, and they would be more than happy to have even a fraction of what I am eating regularly. Why should I be so picky and upset when I am being served delicious food that others have prepared for me with love?
I think however, my saving grace in this country is that in India pure vegetarian food means no eggs, so I figure a little milk or ghee here or there won’t kill me. However, when I am on my own, I choose vegan meals when I can, and I am really ready for a week long detox once I hit Europe. But until then, another masala chai please!
I would love to hear your thoughts. How do you manage dietary restrictions when traveling and in India particularly?