Is Indian Cuisine Vegan Friendly?

A few months ago, I got into one of those ‘Let’s be nice to each other even though we very clearly disagree on this’ conversations. The topic: was Indian cuisine vegan friendly? My (white) opponent insisted that every time she’d eaten Indian cuisine before she made her vegan transition, there had been some form of dairy in it. Reflecting on my 20-plus years of eating Gujarati Indian food once or twice a day, dairy, although present, was by no means a staple; chai was usually made with cow’s milk, in sweltering British Indian summers, Mum would make chaas out of yoghurt, and paneer was basically akin to gold. So I stubbornly stood my ground. None of those things were necessary in the diet, and I, amongst many other Gujarati Brits, had been brought up on the accidentally vegan thali of white rice, a lentil dahl, spiced vegetables and wheat rotis. But if my white friend had only ever tried Indian food at places like Dishoom, I can see why she would have thought this way.

The Dishoom franchise, and similar other restaurants such as Mowgli and Bundobust in the North, claim to have brought Indian street food to the UK. Between them they’ve done a solid job of bringing Mumbai, Delhi, Gujarat, and Tamil Nadu to the table, but not before a slight Westernisation of the menu. Paneer- and dahi-based dishes seemed to suddenly become more prevalent to adhere to the Western palate, and the humble thali was deemed too boring. Even the South Indian breakfast staple, idli sambar, has slowly been marginalised in favour of three paneer courses.

Funnily enough, your local Indian takeaway is probably still likely to serve all of these because they’re simultaneously serving a local community of actual Indian folk who are demanding accidental vegan cuisine.   

The conversation got the cogs whirring though; whilst certain parts of India have always been consciously vegetarian, very few, if any at all, have been consciously vegan. Floating between Jainism and Hinduism, I saw some of my aunties avoid root vegetables (potatoes, onions and garlic) wherever possible, since uprooting a plant killed not only the plant itself, but tiny microorganisms that depended on the root vegetable to survive.

It goes without saying that eggs were off limits, even buried deep in cakes and pastries - I recently came across a video of somebody buying and incubating quails’ eggs until one hatched, which only strengthens the case. I had to politely decline Haribo and marshmallows due to the gelatin used as a gelling agent, and any meaty-flavoured crisps (BBQ / Prawn Cocktail) did not enter the house. Funnily enough, when crisp companies began marketing themselves as containing *real* meat / crustaceans on their crisps, that only served to deter us more than ever before, even if the BBQ Dorito’s ingredient list is just a clever mix of very vegetarian flavourings and extracts.

Our vegetarianism extended beyond our food intake, however; wearing leather in any form was frowned upon, and when my sister started playing a violin strung with horsehair, we all collectively winced.

So, you’d think, with this level of moral-based meticulousness, that naturally Jains / Gujaratis would be vegan, and although Jain scholars have argued that veganism acts in accordance with Jain morals, Jains and Gujaratis generally stick to lacto-vegetarianism.

Veganism in the West stems from a multitude of reasons, ranging from health through to the more popular reason of a political rebellion against the dairy industry and animal cruelty.

The strict food regulations in Jain / Gujarati cuisine effectively originate in the same mindset; it’s healthier, non-violent and less ungodly. Then why the discrepancy on dairy products?

The Western dialogue around veganism uses the narrative of rampant industrialisation of the dairy industry, where calves are separated from mothers at birth, mothers are repeatedly inseminated to produce more milk, and eventually killed off to be turned into beef. In India, where the majority  of Jains and Gujaratis live, this cruelty tends not to exist. Cows are still family- or community-owned, taken care of, their calves remain with their mothers, and with close to a minute percentage of the Indian population consuming beef - as well as the controversial legal prohibition of sale and purchase of cattle for slaughter across India - there is little reason for the cow to be killed. If, then, your reason for being vegan is this moral, industrial dilemma, would you drink milk from a family-owned and milked cow?

Ghee presents a similar conundrum. The newest superfood craze on the market, ghee is simultaneously very not vegan. If you’re vegan / dairy-free for health reasons, you might just get away with it since the milk solids, and thus any lactose that may cause intolerance, are effectively removed. Ghee itself does still come from animals, however. Restaurants tend to cook with ghee to give food a richness that, similar to Dishoom / Mowgli / Bundobust, appeals to a Euro-American taste palate. But, aside from a small pot of ghee to melt on to hot chapatis, all I remember is my mother and grandmother cooking with vegetable oil.

It is well-known that Indian food is vegetarian-friendly, but in the race to make it Westerner-friendly, it has arguably lost its vegan-friendliness. For fear of being too friendly to too many people, Indian food just needs to stick its ground and be the hot and spicy mama that it is known to be. We’ll be here trying to make a good cutting of chai with soy / oat / almond milk.