India, in my opinion, is one of the most amazing countries in the world. The people are lovely, the culture is rich, the sun is hot and the food is amazing. But being vegan wasn’t as easy as I first thought. Although being a vego was no problem, the presence of butter, cheese and ghee (unpasteurised butter) became extremely difficult to avoid. Boycotting gluten was actually easier than Veganism, to my own surprise, and I didn’t get sick once – woohoo – (rare occasion).
After eating Indian for the past 60 meals (yes, I probably won’t be eating it again anytime soon), I think now I have a better understanding on how to avoid eating animal products and my good friend wheat. So I bring you my take on keeping your values in check by not eating other sentient beings when in India as well as being free from gluten. Enjoy
Before I begin… Yes, I found myself in situations where I had no idea what I was eating but that’s half the fun.
Survival Guide: Chapter 1 – Being ethical in India
One thing you should know about India before going is that you need to be prepared to see malnourished and injured animals. The streets, both in the North and South of India are riddled with dogs, cows, sheep, cats, goats and chickens all of which are usually injured, super skinny and ill. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot you can do and it is really saddening to see. Most are strays, being sold for food or have been left to die.
Cows are slightly different in that they are actually sacred to Hindus. Cows are seen as mother like animals because they feed and fuel humans… For this reason you won’t see beef and leather. Instead you’ll see camel leather. Dairy is still on the cards but even if you’re not vegan, I wouldn’t be consuming it there.
Cows are ‘lucky’ in that they are well fed as people bring them offerings to eat…
Animals are also misused for human purpose/entertainment and tourists are usually the worst offenders. There’s plenty of camel and elephant rides going on and it’s pretty clear, even to those who aren’t vegan, they are mistreated. The girls I travelled with were appalled by their lack of conditioning and the pressure and weight they were made to carry.
One of the things I couldn’t believe even existed are the snake charmers. Snake charmers are people who remove the venom from a snake and make them dance to music they play. Just by looking at a snake charmer, they make you pay for witnessing. Fortunately we received the advice of not looking at them before we encountered them because there is no way I would pay to see a poor snake jump up from its basket and dance.
Survival Guide: Chapter 2 – Eating plant-based in India
As I said earlier, avoiding animal products is pretty difficult particularly when you don’t know the meaning of Hindu words on a menu. Some of the time there will be an english explanation of a dish and other times there won’t be. Depending on where you go you might be able to order a gravy (curry) with rice and Chinese or you might be given a set meal where rice, bread, different chutneys, sambars and gravies are put on your banana leaf. Set meals can be super difficult to work out what you’re eating.
You’ll find most people speak English as it is often used as a common language between Indians from different states (each state has their own language) so you can ask about whether things are vegetarian or contain butter. The word vegan isn’t really understood so I’d bring a dietary requirement card which explains it in the language of the state you are in. It’s very likely when you ask a question, you probably won’t get the response you’re after or understand what was said. So below I’ve created a list of things that I’ve worked out to be good/not good to eat!
- Aloo – potato
- Gohbi or Gobbi – cauliflower
- Channa – chickpeas
- Fried Rice – there is usually a separate egg option
- Masala gravies – Aloo gohbi masala is my favourite
- Dosa – rice pancake that goes with a sambar
- Sambar – curry/soup
- Any breads – unless it is a garlic or butter version
- Bhindi – Okra (lady fingers)
- Paneer – cottage cheese
- Chutney – they can have yoghurt or honey
- Ghee – unpasteurised butter
- Makhani Dahl – has butter. Other dahls are fine
- Anda – egg
- Dahi – yoghurt
- All desserts – unless fruit salad
There’s plenty of things I’ve maybe missed but that is just what I worked out.
On a few occasions unfortunately my food came with paneer when it didn’t say it on the menu so I just ate around it or they drizzled a yoghurt on the top which I just scrapped off. Due to not consuming milk and losing my resistant to it, I did get sick a couple of times. But you have to take the risk sometimes…
Couple things that were amazing was the fact every place had a vegetarian menu and the availability of fresh fruit and veg all of over the place in villages and cities. If you’re buying the fruit and veg from vendors, it is completely safe and is as fresh as fresh if it has skin! Don’t be eating apple or carrots with skin as you might get sick from the water it was washed in. New fruit and veg is brought in every single day and Indians buy it every single day rather than stocking up for the week!
Survival Guide: Chapter 3 – Avoiding gluten in India
The fact I didn’t get glutened in 20 days while being in a foreign country still puzzles me. But I’m not complaining.
The best thing about India is that their food is made from scratch so there is no surprises such as thickeners like old mate 1442. Even some of the breads are gluten-free but asking whether it contains wheat is a challenge due to langauge barriers. Like I said in the vegan section, get a dietary card. Coeliac Australia has them and you can find them on their website. There are also other sites which have them.
The only bread that sometimes is GF is roti. If it is anything else, the likelihood of it being gf is very low. Whenever I asked for gluten-free or wheat free bread they pointed to breads made from wholemeal flour and Maida flower which are both wheat. So be carefull. The only things I’d suggest having is a dosa which is a rice pancake, makki di roti – made from corn flour and a roti made from chickpeas.
Cross contamination is likely too but somehow I dodged the bullet or just avoided the symptoms of it occurring.
Gluten free snacks are also hard to find as literally everything contains wheat. Bananas and dried dates were my staple snack when I was on the road. So word of advice, BYO snacks from your mother land.
Other than that, I was mostly safe to eat everything I wanted too. It wasnt’ so bad after all. The only thing that sucked was I couldn’t eat the western breakfast as the options were toast, cereal or pancakes… so I had to have curry three times a day.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed my insight to being a vegan and coeliac in India…
Sorry for the cringe and eat all the plants,