Seasoned vegetarians mostly agree that some of the most delicious meat-free dishes in the world come from India. Visiting an Indian restaurant — or better yet, the country itself — isn’t a compromise on taste and choice; you don’t feel like a six-year-old limited to the bottom of the last page of the menu. With hearty plant-based ingredients like chickpeas, lentils, potatoes, beans, cauliflower, whole grains, and rice, India is a culinary haven when it comes to some dietary restrictions. Plus, if you’re of the conviction that food is really just a medium to deliver mouth-watering spices, you’ve got a whole subcontinent of options to work with. Turmeric, cumin, coriander, cayenne, mustard seed — these are spices that can transform a simple vegetable stew into a palate-tingling, anti-inflammatory religious experience. Whether you’re a staunch carnivore or haven’t touched meat since Nixon was in the white house, scroll down and check out our culinary tour of India, geared specifically towards vegetarians.
Punjab and North India
India’s northern region is heavily influenced by an agricultural lifestyle, and its dishes are known to be rich, buttery, and bursting with flavor. Although it’s a region heralded by meat-lovers, census bureaus estimate around 67% of North Indians are vegetarian.
One of the Punjab region’s non-meat staples is chana masala, a thick chickpea-based soup with green chilis, onion, garlic, cilantro, cumin, turmeric, and tomatoes. Preparing the dish is fairly simple as well — all you need is one large pot and about 30 minutes of free time. The result is a stew-like curry that’s super flavorful and makes for a hearty plant-based meal. Dal — or lentils — is another key vegetarian base in the Punjab region. It’s interpreted in a myriad of ways and can be served up as the lehsuni variety (garlic with orange lentils), or as Dal Makhani (black lentils in a thick cream). Cooking these dishes has traditionally been an all-day affair, but if you can get your hands on a pressure cooker, you can serve them in under a couple hours.
Southern Indians are masters of seafood who use coconut religiously and usually can’t go more than a meal or two without rice. In Kerala specifically, one of the local specialties is Vegetable Biryani, an Indian take on Chinese fried rice. A heaping portion of rice is tossed with fresh vegetables and spices including nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and coriander. The masala dosa — a thin crispy pancake made from a batter of rice and lentil flour — is another southern classic that’s versatile and can be enjoyed at any hour of the day. If you’re in the area, India’s southern city of Bangalore was recently named the most vegan-friendly, with tons of restaurants and markets offering delicious meat-free ingredients.
Gujarat, Rajasthan, and West India
The Rajasthan region of India is the motherland of the country’s vegetarian cuisine. With over 75% of the population describing themselves as a vegetarian, it’s a bit of an expert on the matter. In Gujarati, be sure to order the famous Gujarati thali — which literally translates to “full plate meal.” What arrives is a huge round platter with a tapas-style collection of delicious small plates. Grab some naan and dive into the ringana methi (eggplant with fenugreek leaves), the undhiyu (mixed veggies with spinach paste), and the aloo rasila (potato and tomato thin curry).
Because the region is particularly dry, it’s culinary culture has had to make do. Dal baati churma is a hard, unleavened, industrious bread that requires little water to make and can stay fresh for weeks. Sauces and soups are usually milk-based as water is pretty inaccessible, so be on the lookout if dairy gives you tummy problems. Lastly, Gujarat is known for its slightly sweet dishes, as they add a pinch of sugar to almost every plate.
Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Sikkim
Up near India’s border with Nepal and Tibet, the cuisine is heavily influenced by its rugged mountainous neighbors. Here you’ll find tons of hearty soups, stews, steaming hot noodle dishes and dumplings that’ll make you never want to return home. Be sure to try thukpa, gyakho, and — knowing full well that beer is vegetarian — tongba, a famous Himalayan millet beer.
Bengal and West Bengal
What’s unique about India’s Bengal region is that dishes are served in courses, which makes things fun. They also specialize in using chili pepper and mustard oils to give the dishes a spicy flavor. While in Bengal, try Rasgulla, a syrupy dessert made from chhena (Indian cottage cheese) and semolina dough. If you’re not in the mood for fried dough and cheese, try Bhapaa Aloo, a humble bowl of potatoes tossed in garlic, coconut paste and mustard oil that’s as fun to say as it is to eat.