In my professional kitchen, I prepare the whole range of Indian dishes that San Franciscans stop in to enjoy, but in my kitchen at home, I prepare only vegan fare. Though it might surprise you to know how little changes between the two—Indian cuisine is actually highly accessible for vegan diners. If you’re a looking for a new vegan experience outside of your tried-and-true San Francisco restaurants, give Indian a try. Following are some of the most vegan-friendly Indian dishes you’ll find.
Start your meal with papadum and chutney appetizers (North Indian origin). Papadum is a crispy fried lentil wafer, paper-thin, and served with many different types of chutney. Ask your waiter if any of the chutneys have dahi (yoghurt) in them. Usually, the tamarind and cilantro chutneys will be dairy-free, while the mint chutney may be yoghurt-based. Papadum serves the same role as tortilla chips in Mexican restaurants (some high-end Nepalese restaurants in the North Bay actually serve papadum with guacamole-inspired chutneys!), and it comes in varieties—plain or speckled with black pepper.
If you are eating in a South Indian-inspired restaurant, the classic idli sambar is a great vegan appetizer option. Idli, a steamed savory cake made of fermented black lentils and rice, is the staple for breakfast in the South. It’s served with a spicy sambar soup prepared with lentils and vegetables and flavored with tamarind.
A Protein-Packed Soup
Indian food makes great use of the legume, and the noble garbanzo bean is the king of the legume family. Chana dal features plump garbanzos swimming in a rich curry sauce. In rural India and by the train stations, it is common to feast on chana dal served with deep-fried puri (small round whole-wheat roti). The puris puff up during cooking and then deflate when served. They are used to scoop the chana; the soft but crispy bread is a perfect match for the spicy gravy and filling garbanzo beans. A variation on this dish is called chole batura, in which the puri is replaced by an enormous basketball-sized version of the puri. If this is on the menu, check with the waiter—the batura is usually made with yoghurt to aid in the leavening process. It’s great fun, but not vegan. Stick with the puri—the taste is the same, just less dramatic.
Dry But Flavorful Vegetable Dishes
Generally vegetables are prepared in two different ways in Indian cuisine. You can order vegetables swimming in a soup-like gravy, such as vegetable curries. Or you can feast on “dry” vegetables, a thick concoction of mixed vegetables flavored with seeds and spices.
If you are eating in a South Indian restaurant, look for the masala dosa, a huge crispy pancake made from fermented lentil and rice batter and stuffed with dry potato, onion, and chile. The distinctive sour taste of the pancake contrasts with the potato blandness, and then you hit the notes of sweet onion and spicy chile. Masala dosa is usually accompanied with a sambar (like idli mentioned above). Most South Indian restaurants in the Bay Area will have many variations on the masala dosa, with alternate seasonal stuffings such as pumpkin or spicy mung bean.
If you are eating in a North Indian restaurant, order aloo gobi, dry potatoes and cauliflower. Similar in texture to the masala dosa stuffing, you can eat aloo gobi with chapati or puri. Check with your waiter to see if the aloo gobi can be prepared without butter or ghee, to make sure you are remaining vegan.
Wet Vegetable Dishes
Look for navratan vegetable korma. Navratan means “nine gems”: this dish features nine different flavors served in a delicious creamy sauce. There are many legends associated with the meaning of the nine gems. Perhaps the dish was created for emperor Akbar in honor of his nine ministers. Or perhaps the nine gems are nine types of vegetables, nine spices, or nine fruits and nuts.
Navratan vegetable korma features an assortment of seasonal vegetables, such as peas, green beans, bell peppers, carrots, zucchini, onions, and potatoes—and it will vary from restaurant to restaurant. Usually it also includes raisins, cashews, and a creamy coconut-tomato sauce spiced with chili, ginger, garam masala, turmeric, and coriander. It’s common to find paneer in this dish: ask if it can be served without this cheese. The North Indian version of this is very mild; the South Indian can have some heat.
This is one of the most delicious choices you can order in a South or North Indian restaurant. You have to be careful though to make sure it is made creamy with coconut milk and nut butters, not cream. In South Indian restaurants this dish is commonly vegan, but in North Indian restaurants it’s best to check for paneer.
If korma is not available, you can substitute vegetable jalfreezy. This is also a vegetable assortment that will give you a variety of seasonal vegetables with rich curry flavor. Ask for it mild to counterbalance anything you’ve ordered that’s hot.
Consider the Whole Menu for Vegan Options
Here’s a quick list of what is usually safe for vegans at Indian restaurants and what is not. (If you’re looking for a more complete list, click here, scroll down to Menu, and choose Dietary Specs to see DOSA’s options.)
When in doubt, ask your waiter. A lot of times, a dish that is not vegan right off the menu can easily be made so by eliminating or substituting certain ingredients. Here at DOSA, our menu is very vegan-friendly, in that a wide variety of dishes can be made vegan upon request.
At an Indian restaurant, you don’t need to repeat that familiar experience of narrowing in on the one or two accessible vegan dishes. In fact, you’ll need to come back again and again to experience the unique flavors spanning a wide range of options.