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Indian restaurants often throw me off. Usually I must ask if the bread is not buttered but the bread is sometimes made with milk and sometimes not. I know some words, like "paneer," refer to dairy products but often make a mistake and order something with butter in it. What is your best method for ordering vegan in an Indian restaurant?

If the answer is "just ask," actually learning how you ask would help since it is difficult to sound educated enough. But I am also interested in being educated enough about the cuisine to just know for myself since it is often vegetarian and excellent.

  • The good news is that more Indian restaurants are becoming aware of the vegan consumer and are both labeling the vegan status of their dishes and slightly altering the recipes of the some of the traditional veg-but-not-vegan dishes to be truly vegan. – James Reinstate Monica Polk Nov 7 at 0:44
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The following is based on my experience of South Asian restaurants in the UK and on eating out in Chennai.

If it is vegetarian, it could contain

  • ghee
  • yogurt / curd / buttermilk
  • paneer
  • cream

These may be mentioned in the description of the dish.

Here are some dishes that I find are usually vegan (but do ask to be sure) if ghee is not mentioned

  • snacks like pakora, bhaji, bonda, veg samosas, crunchy appetisers
  • chutneys and pickles
  • dosa (some kinds) and idli
  • chapati, roti, poori
  • plain rice and some rice dishes like lemon rice
  • many dals, chana masala, sambar or bean dishes
  • many vegetable curries (if no paneer or cream is mentioned)

Some things that are likely to contain dairy (even if not mentioned):

  • naan
  • biryani and some other rice dishes
  • desserts and sweets
  • rasam
  • creamy dals
  • paratha
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    I'd still be wary and ask because there are buttered dosas for example and butter might be added to any dish that would be otherwise vegan, as some sort of "garnishing" and this is usually not explicitly mentioned. – adarsh Jan 31 '17 at 20:45
  • Actually they use Ghee when making Dosa. So it should fall under Vegetarian category. – RocketRuwan Jan 31 '17 at 21:25
  • @RocketRuwan, not all of them. I've had Dosa without Ghee in what seems to be an authentic Kerala cuisine restaurant. – Turion Jan 31 '17 at 21:56
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    Curd is mostly used in the process of cooking biryani and ghee is used in sweets. Some chefs prefer ghee over oil in cooking Biryani. So, they are vegetarian and mostly non-vegan.Dosa can be made using oil too. So, it is definitely vegan. Chapati has one t actually. – Nog Shine Jun 30 '17 at 3:36
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    One important exception to dal dishes being vegan is "Dal makhani" or "dal makhni" (various spellings exist) which is invariably prepared with butter/ghee – Kiochi Apr 27 '18 at 16:56
3

Paneer is cottage cheese in Hindi.

In terms of bread, it is likely that naan would contain dairy products. Chapatti/roti usually would not contain any dairy products. Most Indians who are vegetarian are so for religious reasons, so it's somewhat hard to find vegan food in India, even though you'd find a lot of vegetarian food.

Typically, North Indian food, which I find is more popular in the western world, is quite likely to contain dairy products. Now, there are South Indian foods, that contain dairy products, but it's less likely.

The final solution, unfortunately is to either prepare some food for yourself, or ask.

  • Did you mean "Most Indians WHO are vegetarian ARE SO for religious reasons"? Because most Indians are not vegetarian. Vegetarian India A Myth? – SquidInc. Apr 28 '18 at 21:28
  • Yes, that is right. – adarsh May 2 '18 at 10:03
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    I think the Vegetarian India Myth is due to the American fixation on beef. I've actually had the unfortunate experience of someone preparing a chicken dinner for me because I didn't eat meat. It felt awkward to explain that included chicken, because it's difficult to say that in a way that doesn't imply the person is stupid. While some might not mind implying the other person is stupid, I find it's not conducive to getting their behavior to change. – Ed Grimm Feb 27 at 4:11
  • @EdGrimm Long ago, when I first vegetarian, I encountered that problem frequently in the UK and Ireland. Many people interpreted meat as what is usually called "red meat" today. They would expect me to eat fish and chicken. – badjohn Feb 28 at 14:00
  • I don't think that paneer is very close to cottage cheese. For example, pieces of paneer stay firm when cooked but cottage cheese is not firm even before cooking. # – badjohn Feb 28 at 14:05
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This is a significant challenge. Although vegetarianism is much more common in India and Indian communities than most western countries, there is rather less variation in the interpretation. In the west, there is a huge variation. In India, vegetarian almost always includes milk and milk products but not eggs. Other positions are often not well understood. I have heard vegans asked: "why would you decline the gift of the holy cow" while lacto-ovo vegetarians struggle to explain why they eat eggs.

You can try asking but you might struggle. If you are not super-strict then do some research on typical ingredients of the dishes and take a chance. If you are super-strict then you might need to eat elsewhere. Probably for the super-strict, you will either need to eat at specific vegan restaurants or ones which mark dishes as vegan. Answers on the spot from waiters elsewhere might not be reliable.

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Here is Wikipedia's list of Indian dairy products:

Curdled dairy products

  • Paneer - an unaged, acid-set, non-melting farmer cheese made by curdling heated milk with lemon juice or other non-rennet food acid, and then - removing the whey and pressing the result into a dry unit.
  • Chhena - like paneer, except some whey is left and the mixture is beaten thoroughly until it becomes soft, of smooth consistency, and malleable - but firm.
  • Sandesh - a confection made from chhena mixed with sugar then grilled lightly to caramelize, but removed from heat and molded into a ball or - some shape.
  • Rasogolla - a confection made from mixture of chhena and semolina rolled into a ball and boiled in syrup.

Non-curdled dairy products

  • Khoa or Mawa - made by reducing milk in an open pan over heat.
  • Peda - a confection made by mixing sugar with khoa and adding flavoring, such as cardamom.
  • Barfi - a confection made by reducing milk and sugar until it solidifies and adding flavoring, such as pistachio.
  • Gulab jamun - a confection made by mixing khoa and sugar, caramelizing it by frying, and soaking it in syrup containing rosewater.
  • Kulfi - made from slowly freezing sweetened condensed milk. In comparison to ice cream, kulfi is not whipped or otherwise aerated.
  • Ghee - type of clarified butter that is cooked long enough to caramelize the milk sugar and sterilize the liquid.

Fermented dairy products

  • Mishti doi - dahi mixed with sugar
  • Shrikhand - strained yogurt mixed with sugar, and often flavorings such as cardamom, saffron, or fruit.
  • Wheyvit - an alcoholic beverage prepared by fermenting whey with yeast.[citation needed]

Other dairy products

  • Kheer - made by boiling rice or broken wheat with milk and sugar, and sometimes flavored with cardamom, raisins, saffron, pistachios, or almonds.
  • Chhena Murki - made by frying cubes of chhena to burn the outside, then soaking them in syrup flavored with cardamom.[citation needed]
  • Pantooa - like gulab jamun, except with some chhena mixed with the usual ingredients.[citation needed]
  • A2 Milk - produced only from Desi Gir Cow with hump. It has A2 protein beneficial for human body.
  • Vedic A2 Ghee - made through an ancient vedic method which is hand churning the curd made from Gir Cow A2 milk
  • Basundi - also made up from milk.
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Most Indian-esque restaurants I've visited expressly note whether a dish is vegan, vegetarian or contains meat. And even then I grill the waitress for exactly what the dish is made with and explain that I have severe food allergies to butter, milk or eggs. They never get offended and are more than happy to help understand what is in certain dishes so I know for the future.

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