Indian is one of my favorite cuisines and luckily, there are plenty of vegan options to try! While menus can vary depending on the restaurant (whether it's vegetarian or not) and if it's North or South Indian, you should almost always be able to find vegan Indian food.
🌯 Is Indian Food Vegan Friendly?
Absolutely! As long as you know which dishes to order and ingredients to avoid, you can easily find vegan Indian food. Many Indian cuisines are vegan friendly and incredibly delicious. The spice blends and cooking techniques turn ordinary vegetables into an amazing meal.
Vegetarianism is extremely common in India due to religious beliefs such as Hinduism and the ingredients commonly used in Indian food like legumes and vegetables.
India is a huge country, and the type of food served varies wildly from region to region. Because of this, you can go to two different Indian restaurants and find entirely different menus. There will sometimes be overlap of cuisines, but many restaurants will be distinctly North Indian, Punjabi, or South Indian, to name a few.
Since vegetarianism is practiced for spiritual and ethical reasons, it's common to find 100% vegetarian restaurants. If the restaurant isn't vegan or doesn't mark vegan items, you may have to do a bit of digging to find out which dishes are free of animal products, particularly dairy.
🧈 Ingredients to Check
While it's easy to find vegetarian Indian food, dairy products are used heavily, specifically butter, cheese, yogurt, and sometimes milk or cream. While you can easily avoid dishes with cheese and skip the yogurt sauce, the biggest thing to look out for is clarified butter (ghee).
The best way to navigate the menu is by learning the names of common ingredients and vegetables in the dishes.
Saag=combo of spinach and mustard greens
Korma=a yogurt-based curry
Ghee (Clarified Butter)
Ghee, or clarified butter, is most commonly used in curries and vegetables for sautéing and pan frying, but many restaurants use oil instead of ghee. The only way to know before ordering is to ask. It depends on the restaurant, but chances are the dish is made with oil or can be made with oil because it's much less expensive than butter.
If you're eating Indian food and not sure if your dish was made with oil or butter, you can sometimes tell by looking at it. The fat often rises to the top and if it's still liquid at lower temperatures and pours easily, it's probably oil. Ghee will begin to thicken as it cools down and behave like butter. Again, you can't know for sure unless you ask, but this is a good first step if you're unsure.
Some Indian dishes are traditionally made with butter and it's unlikely that they will made differently, even if other curries on the menu are made with oil.
Naan, a puffy flatbread, is absolutely delicious. You can order it plain or topped with chopped cilantro and garlic. Unfortunately, it is made with yogurt and brushed with butter. Check the menu for roti and paratha. These unleavened flatbreads may still be made with butter, but are more likely to have a vegan option.
Tikka masala, most commonly made with chicken, is a curry which is sometimes also called butter chicken. You're not as likely to find vegetarian tikka masala since it's typically made with meat, but if a vegetable or legume-based tikka masala is offered, skip this dish.
Makhani, a Punjabi curry, literally means "butter" in Punjabi and it's a similar dish to tikka masala, but the dairy products are used in different ratios. I just learned this while researching for this article and I'm remembering all of the times I've eaten dal makhani, a curry made with lentils. I'm pretty sure I asked if it was made with ghee or oil, but makhani is also made with a small amount of cream or milk, so... oops. Make sure to order the regular dal, a curry made with split peas (but ask if it contains ghee).
If the curries at a restaurant are made with oil, there's still a chance that other menu items are made with ghee, such as creamy desserts like halwa, a grain pudding made with semolina (sooji), sugar, and butter.
Yogurt is often added to sauces, curries, and drinks. If the menu describes a dish as creamy, ask if it's made with yogurt or coconut. If there's no description, you can at least know to avoid certain dishes and condiments such as the ones below.
Sauces and Appetizers
Again, naan is made with yogurt and brushed with butter.
Raita is a yogurt-based sauce with cucumber and chopped mint. It's typically served alongside your meal rather than added to it, so it's easy to avoid by simply not using it if it comes with your meal by accident.
Some chutneys will contain yogurt too. If it looks creamy, it's probably yogurt. If it has a bit of grit to it, it's likely coconut. Simply ask to confirm.
Curries and Entrees
Some dishes are yogurt based and others will contain it in small amounts. Keep an eye out for these dishes.
Chaat is a type of street food made with various Indian appetizers chopped up and served on a plate coated in yogurt sauce. Samosa chaat is a common version of this dish. Avoid the dairy and simply order a samosa as an appetizer.
Kadhi is a South Indian dish made with pakora (onion fritters) in a yogurt gravy. This dish is always made with yogurt so it's best to avoid it unless you're at a vegan Indian restaurant.
Korma is a type of mild curry typically made with yogurt.
Remember tikka masala, or butter chicken? Not only does it contain butter/ghee, but it's also made with yogurt and cream. Again, it's not as common to find a vegetarian version of the dish, but be aware just in case you come across this dish on a menu.
Drinks and Desserts
Indian food has wonderfully refreshing drinks and sweet, colorful desserts. Many of them are vegan (which we'll get to in the next section), but some of them contain yogurt.
Mango lassi is a popular drink made with mango (or sometimes another fruit) and yogurt. Lassi always contains yogurt, so ask for a mango juice instead.
Some desserts like pudding or shrikhand (a strained yogurt dessert) are made with yogurt.
Cheese is pretty easy to avoid in Indian food. Look out for dishes with "paneer" in the name, which means cheese, such as palak paneer (spinach and cheese) and matar paneer (sometimes called mutter paneer or mattar paneer, which is peas and cheese), two common vegetarian North Indian dishes. Paneer is typically served cut into cubes so you will be able to easily identify it in a curry.
🍛 Common Vegan Indian Dishes
So now that I've given you the rundown on which dishes to avoid and that there may be dairy products hidden in all kinds of dishes, you're probably wondering how Indian food could possibly be vegan friendly. Luckily, the list of vegan Indian food is longer as long as you know where to look!
Different regions in India (notably North and South, but there are so many more of course!) have totally different cuisines, and unless they exclusively serve one cuisine, many restaurants in the US and other Western countries will offer a few dishes from other regions.
If you've only eaten Indian food a few times, you're probably most accustomed to North Indian cuisine—samosas, vegetable curries, and breads like naan and roti. South Indian food utilizes lentils and rice in dishes like dal, dosa, and savory pastry-like dishes such as idli, vada, and uttapam.
I'd argue it's easier to order South Indian food straight off the menu as a vegan, but both cuisines are very vegan friendly. There are SO many different types of vegetarian and vegan Indian dishes and cuisines that this list just scratches the surface.
Sides, Appetizers & Sauces
Sauces and Chutneys
One of the best parts of Indian food is all of the different chutneys that bring all kinds of different flavors to your meal. Some of the most common chutneys are tamarind (sweet and sour), mint (fresh and tangy), coconut (rich and buttery), and chili garlic chutney (spicy). There are even more varieties made with mango and other herbs and spices.
The sauces to avoid are raita (which is made with yogurt and cilantro) and any other yogurt-based sauces.
If you've eaten Indian food, you've probably eaten a samosa. These deep fried triangle-shaped pastries are filled with potatoes and peas and typically served with tamarind and mint chutneys for dipping. Samosas are usually vegan. The only case where they might not be is if the potato filling is cooked with ghee rather than oil, so just ask to be sure.
South Indian Fritters and Savory Pastries
South Indian snacks such as idli (steamed rice and lentil cake), vada (savory rice and lentil donut), kachori (deep fried savory pastry), puri (puffed flatbread), and aloo tikki (potato cakes) are accidentally vegan! All of these savory appetizers are made with egg-free batter containing lentils and/or rice. They're all deep fried or steamed, so they'll be made with oil rather than butter.
While I can't 100% guarantee how each restaurant prepares theirs, if you are having trouble finding out if a menu item is vegan, these items are a safe bet.
Chaat or chat is a snack or small meal made with chopped potatoes and appetizers (like idli, puri, and aloo tikki) topped with onions, cilantro, chutneys like mint and tamarind, and sauces. Nine times out of ten it's also topped with yogurt, but if you're looking to make a meal out of appetizers, you can simply ask the restaurant to hold the yogurt.
Look for dishes like aloo tikki chaat and kachori chat and order them sans yogurt.
There are so many different types of curries with different flavor profiles and spice levels, so anyone can find one they like! If you can confirm that the curries are made with oil instead of ghee, you can order any of the tomato or garlic/ginger based curries off the menu.
Common vegan-friendly North Indian curries are chana masala (chickpea curry in a ginger tomato garlic sauce), aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower in a ginger garlic turmeric sauce), and aloo matar (potatoes and peas in a spiced tomato sauce).
In South Indian cuisine, dal is a common dish. Dal is made from stewed lentils or split peas with flavorful spices in a tomato-based sauce. It's typically served with rice or bread.
Biryani is a pan fried rice dish made with a several different spices like cardamom, clove, cinnamon, and saffron.
Sometimes the saffron is cooked in milk before being added to the dish, so just be sure to ask about that and whether the dish is made with oil rather than ghee.
Dosa (South Indian Crepe)
Ah, dosa! One of my favorite Indian dishes. A dosa is a thin and crispy crepe made with a fermented lentil and rice batter, and it's pretty much always vegan. Dosa is served in a big roll and can be served plain or with a filling ranging from vegetables to potatoes to cheese. All dosas are served with chutneys and sambar (a vegetable and pigeon pea stew). My favorite dosa (and one of my favorite Indian dishes) is masala dosa, which is filled with spiced potatoes and onions.
How do you eat a dosa? It's typically eaten with your hands by ripping off pieces of the crepe and dipping it in sambar and chutney. If you ordered a filled dosa, you'll probably want to start using a fork once you reach the filling. I like to pour the remaining sambar and chutney on the potato filling and continue eating it with a fork or spoon.
One of my favorite vegetarian Indian restaurants, Bombay Sweets in Milwaukee, WI, has several bakery cases filled with colorful confections, nut mixes, and other Indian desserts. We usually make a stop for a to-go order on the way home to Chicago and admire the trays upon trays of sweets while waiting for our food to be prepared.
The Indian sweets I've tried are typically very sweet, so they're best if you have a sweet tooth, or in small doses! Most Indian confections such as barfi (squares made with condensed milk and nuts), halwa (a sweet semolina pudding), and jalebi (a sticky sweet deep fried confection coated in syrup) are made with milk and/or butter, so there are not a ton of vegan options.
Laddu or ladoo is a ball-shaped sweet made of flour, sugar, and nuts commonly eaten during Diwali. It can be made many different ways, and is the confection most likely to have a vegan option. You'll just have to ask.
🍽 Vegan and Vegetarian Indian Restaurants
You should be able to find a vegetarian Indian restaurant in any city, but if you can find a vegan (or vegan-friendly) restaurant, I recommend going there so you don't have to worry about asking which items are vegan.
In my searches for vegan Indian restaurants in the US, I mainly found vegetarian restaurants that have vegan options, but I was hard pressed to find enough 100% vegan Indian restaurants, even in major cities like NYC! I recommend checking searching for vegan and vegetarian restaurants in your city to see if you have a vegan Indian restaurant, or which vegetarian restaurant is the most vegan friendly.
If you're ever in Chicago, be sure to check out Arya Bhavan, an authentic vegan Indian restaurant that also has gluten free and raw menus. Their curries and dosa are perfection, and I've enjoyed going to their Saturday buffets. Personally, I'd skip the pizza and raw menus and stick to the Indian dishes, but you do you!
🥗 More Vegan Friendly Cuisines
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